New Board will make final decision on whether to release a prisoner on parole
Prisoners serving life sentences will become eligible to be considered after 12 years (up from current 7 years)
Victims will continue to be informed when a prisoner is to be considered for parole and will continue be able to make submission to Board
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD, has welcomed the passage through the Oireachtas today of the Parole Bill 2016. The Bill provides for an independent, statutory Parole Board and sets out a clear and transparent process that the Board will follow in making its decisions.
Minister Flanagan said:
I am very pleased that this ground-breaking piece of legislation has been passed by the Oireachtas today. The reforms in the Parole Bill are designed to put the operation of the Parole Board on an independent, statutory footing and to ensure that the way in which it makes decisions is open, transparent, fair and fully informed.
The current Parole Board is established on an administrative basis and its role is to review the cases of prisoners sentenced to determinate sentences of eight years or more. The Board makes recommendations to the Minister for Justice and Equality and advises of the prisoner’s progress to date, the degree to which the prisoner has engaged with various therapeutic services and how best to proceed with the future administration of the sentence. Under current arrangements, the Minister can accept the recommendations in their entirety, in part or reject them.
Under the new bill, which is a private member’s bill sponsored by Deputy Jim O’Callaghan, the Parole Board will be established on a statutory basis and it will have final decision-making power.
Minister Flanagan said:
The Bill also makes a change to the period after which prisoners serving life sentences will become eligible to be considered for parole. While on average in recent years, life sentence prisoners released on parole have served more than 18 years in prison, life sentenced prisoners are currently eligible for an initial parole hearing after 7 years. I recognise that the initial parole hearing, 7 years into a sentence, can be distressing for victims and I believe this is a positive change.
Furthermore, victims will continue to be informed when a prisoner is to be considered for parole, and will continue to be able to make submissions to the Board if they wish; however, the bill extends that right, providing for the right to oral submissions. The victim will also be entitled to legal representation and, to ensure due process, so will the prisoner.
The Minister continued:
The question of parole is at times difficult, and the balancing act that is required is very challenging, seeking as it does to take account both of the perspectives of those who have felt the awful effects of the crimes committed by our long-sentence prisoners, and of those who believe that it is in society’s best interests to provide offenders with the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and have at least the prospect of someday returning to the community outside the prison walls.
The Parole Bill sets out clearly how decisions on granting, revoking and varying parole orders will be made. Parole can only be granted if the Board is satisfied that the prisoner does not pose an undue risk to the public, that he or she has been rehabilitated, and that it is appropriate in all the circumstances to release him or her on parole.
The granting of parole does not end a prisoner’s sentence. Life-sentence prisoners released on parole will be obliged to comply with the conditions of a Parole Order, which will remain in force for the remainder of their lifetime. A breach of a Parole Order is a serious matter and the Parole Board can revoke a Parole Order where a parolee does not comply with its conditions, or where he or she presents a risk to the community.
The Parole Bill was introduced by Deputy Jim O’Callaghan in 2016 and has been supported by the Government. It has been a long-standing objective of several Governments to place the Parole Board on a statutory footing. The establishment of an independent Parole Board on a statutory basis was recommended by the Law Reform Commission in 2013 and the Penal Policy Review Group in 2014. The Minister for Justice and Equality brought forward significant amendments to the Bill, proposing over 70 amendments.
Minister Flanagan concluded:
I want to commend Deputy O’Callaghan for introducing this Bill and for working with me to bring this legislation to fruition. I also want to thank my officials for the huge programme of work that was undertaken to ensure the legislation is robust. This significant legal reform shows what can be achieved through constructive engagement.
Note for editors:
Existing Parole Board
The existing Parole Board is a non-statutory body which advises the Minister for Justice and Equality on the granting of parole, but the final decision whether or not to release a person is made by the Minister. On average, life sentence prisoners released on parole in recent years have served more than 18 years in prison.
The Parole Bill was introduced by Deputy Jim O’Callaghan in 2016. The Government agreed in 2017 to support the Bill and to bring forward appropriate amendments at Report Stage in Dáil Éireann.
Extensive amendments were prepared in the Department of Justice and Equality, working with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government. The Bill and the Government amendments were brought before the Dáil on 3 July 2019 and received broad, cross-party support and welcome. The Bill passed all stages in the Seanad on 11 July 2019.
Before becoming law, the Bill must first be enacted. The vellum copy as approved today by the Oireachtas will be sent to Aras an Uachtarain for signature by President Higgins and will then become the Parole Act 2019.
Once the Act is in force, the practical steps toward establishing the new Parole Board can begin. Board members will need to be recruited and nominated, a Chief Executive identified and the staff appointed. The funding for the new Board will have to be set up and other very practical matters sorted out, such as where the Board’s premises will be.
While all of the above will take some time, the Minister very much welcomes these reforms and is committed to seeing the new Parole Board up and running as soon as is practically possible.