Strong parole system will benefit community

Strong parole system will benefit community

This article was written for and first published in The Herald Sun.

Strengthening Victoria's parole system would strengthen community safety. Ninety-eight per cent of offenders will eventually be released from prison and about 5500 prisoners are released into the Victorian community every year.

It's better to release prisoners gradually with monitoring and conditions than simply letting them go unsupervised. That is what parole is all about. It allows offenders to be released from prison under supervision by community corrections officers with conditions such as curfews, reporting and travel restrictions. It is about protecting community safety by reducing the risk that someone will reoffend.

Some people object to parole because they think it involves "early" release from prison. But when a judge hands down a sentence they normally specify a range - a minimum and a maximum term.

An offender can't be released on parole until they have served the minimum prison sentence set by the court. Release before the end of maximum prison term is not automatic. The parole board decides when an offender is released and on what conditions. But when the maximum term expires, unless they are covered by the serious sex offender legislation, that person must be released, supervised or not.

Without parole, offenders would be released into the community without any supervision or conditions. That would undermine our safety.

Some form of supervised release has been operating since European settlement. When Victoria's first parole legislation was introduced in 1955 by then Liberal Deputy Premier Arthur Rylah, he said the reforms came "from a realisation that the protection of the community can best be achieved by the ultimate rehabilitation of the criminal".

In other words, the ultimate aim of parole is not to provide a benefit to offenders. It is about protecting community safety by reducing the risk that someone will offend again. Parole cannot eliminate the risk of someone reoffending, but the best evidence is that it reduces those risks.

But it is critical that the parole board makes the right decisions about when to grant parole and when parole should be cancelled.

There have been serious failures by the board, by community corrections and by police. The consequences have been horrific - offenders whose parole should have been cancelled, have remained in the community and gone on to commit serious crimes. The answer to these failures is not to abandon parole but to strengthen it.

The Victorian Government is already making changes to improve parole. But it could do more. The Adult and Youth Parole Boards are the only government agencies that are not required to comply with Victoria's Human Rights Charter.

The charter requires government agencies to protect life and the liberty and security of people. It also requires fair decision making.

The exemption for the parole boards should be scrapped. Making parole comply with human rights standards would reduce the risk of bad decisions that undermine safety.

It would also make parole more transparent and accountable to the community, including victims of crime who feel that their voices are not being heard adequately.

The parole boards also are inadequately resourced. In 2011-12, the Adult Parole Board heard more than 10,000 cases over 187 meeting days - on average 54 cases per day, meaning only a few minutes on average can be allocated per case. That increases the risk of mistakes.

The ultimate responsibility for crimes lies with the offender. But there is plenty of evidence about what governments and communities can do to reduce crime and prevent murders, rapes and violent assaults.

For years the Adult Parole Board has highlighted inadequate resourcing of housing, mental health and drug and alcohol treatment. Their calls have largely been ignored.

Serious failures have rightly put the spotlight on Victoria's parole system. To protect community safety, we need to strengthen parole to avoid future mistakes.

Hugh de Kretser is executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre and Arie Freiberg is an Emeritus Professor, Monash University (and contributed to this article in a personal capacity).