Offenders not 'properly risk-assessed' before release

Prison cell The review was carried out by probation and prison inspectors

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Some of the most dangerous prisoners in England and Wales are not being properly risk-assessed before they are freed, a report has found.

Probation and prison inspectors said two-thirds of the plans they examined to manage the release of those serving life sentences were inadequate.

They were "shocked" by the "lack of clarity" and "confusion" over the assessments.

The justice minister said offender management was being reformed.

The report focused on the preparations for release for some of the 13,000 offenders serving life and indeterminate sentences. In both cases a court sets the minimum term of imprisonment an offender must serve before becoming eligible apply for parole.

Life sentences can be handed to offenders for a range of offences including murder, manslaughter and rape.

Lifers are moved to an open prison towards the end of their sentences and it is then that prison governors use risk assessments to make a decision as to whether to allow them out on day release.

The report was most critical of the information available about the offenders at this stage.

Further risk assessments are seen by the parole board later in an offenders' sentence, when a decision is made about whether to release them on licence.


Lifers are the most dangerous prisoners - murderers, rapists and violent repeat offenders.

But for most of them a life sentence isn't a rest-of-life sentence. On average they can expect to spend 16 years in prison before being released, under certain conditions.

First, they need to be assessed for the risk they pose to the public, and this is where the report says the system is inadequate.

When they are released it's on licence - this means that at any point for the rest of their lives they can be returned to prison without trial.

Their release from prison should also be gradual - for example from high security to an open prison, through to day release and halfway houses.

And it's the job of probation officers to supervise them.

Chief Inspector of Probation Liz Calderbank said "quite basic elements" were often missing.

"Assessments in many instances weren't being thorough enough and weren't being completed adequately," she said.

"We were shocked at the fact there was a lack of clarity and confusion about who was responsible for completing risk assessments when in custody."

Inspectors found many assessments were "little more than a summary of the prisoner's account".

"Our main concern with this approach was that an over-reliance on the prisoner's account could lead to the assessor losing touch with the motivation and triggers for the original offence, or failing to focus on the impact on victims," the report found.

The report focused on "key transitional phases" in a life sentence - the transfer into open prison and from there into the community.

"Despite the time it took to reach the point of transfer to open prison, life sentence prisoners were not well prepared for this significant transition," the report said.

It said many prisoners suffered a "culture shock" on their arrival.

Ms Calderbank told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There is no point in leaving people in prison so long that they become so institutionalised that they then can't respond properly to open conditions, because they reoffend - and that's not safe release."

Inspectors found preparation for release relied heavily on the use of release on temporary licence, which can range from a few hours for a wedding to spending time overnight in a location the prisoners intend to live in.

Inspectors concluded this "was not always well planned or underpinned by robust risk assessment".

One unidentified prison changed its paperwork for releasing life sentence prisoners on temporary licence so the section dealing with risk of harm to others was removed to "simplify the process".

'Drift' in the system

Some decisions to grant temporary leave had been based on "out of date" and "poorly completed paperwork".

"In one case, the absence of both purpose and funding for the temporary absence from prison led to the prisoner being arrested for begging at the local train station," the report said.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick said there was a sense of "drift" in the system.

"There are people who, on the whole, they're going to be compliant and they've learned how to be good prisoners," he said.

"What you're not testing is whether they're going to be a good prisoner, you're testing whether they're going to be a good citizen and those are two different things."

The general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, Ian Lawrence, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was "not surprised" by the report.

"I'm not surprised either at the reaction of the Ministry of Justice... that seeks yet again to lay the blame at my members for the shortcomings of the system," he said.

"Our members work hard to rigorously assess lifers or anyone else coming our of prison for that matter.

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of NAPO: "The parole system is a very rigorous system"

"But that's against a backdrop of lack of resources, ridiculous timetables by parole boards and doing links by video - which is something we've been opposed to forever."

Despite the problems, reoffending rates for prisoners released after a life or indeterminate sentence remain relatively low, at between two and five per cent, compared to 46.9% of the overall prison population.

"The vast majority of those on life licence formed positive relationships with their offender managers, did not reoffend and, despite the stigma of the life sentence, were able to lead useful and productive lives after release," the inspectors said.

Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said: "Though this is about a small group of offenders, it is essential we get it right to protect the public.

"This government is introducing significant reforms to offender management, including setting up a new National Probation Service staffed by experts and dedicated to risk assessing and supervising our most serious offenders.

"We are also reviewing the way we carry out releases on temporary licence to learn lessons and see what changes are necessary."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    278. Michael Lloyd - Well said.
    Anyone can pick and choose from the Bible, same as others pick from the Qaran and Tanakh. I.E. with one hand they say do not kill and on the other they advocate murder. Personally I am not religious, it is a pity that some of those that are, do not practice what they preach to others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    We already have the largest prison population per head in Europe, and one of the highest crime rates, so maybe if we stopped locking up so many people for petty offences, we'd have more space for serious offenders and simultaneously reduce the crime rate. Stopping the privatisation of the prison and probation services would help too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    279. You are joking!!! The only connection they have with Blair is getting their ideas from him. Make him blush - has to be one of the funniest lines you have published.

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    No wonder there are so many criminals back on our streets, ready to re-offend at the slightest provocation. It leaves me wondering why the justice system allows panels of total goody-goodies to make assessments of hardened murderers and rapists and then allow them freedom. The whole point of a sentence is that the offender should serve it all, not be let off because they claim to have repented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    @46.The Liberator
    7 Hours ago
    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

    It says a lot about the quality of the moderation here when one of the 'editor's picks' is then removed as it broke the rules and at least one other that appears as a pick (31) is providing oxygen to one of the most prolific trolls on the HYS site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    'Freed lifers' - isn't that an oxymoron?

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    181. Mao Zedong in Cheek

    These people will never be released anywhere near where the elite live, so who cares?
    I do. On their release day just give them a map and directions to Chipping Norton.

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    life in prison
    unlimited usage
    up to 90% discount
    from £5

    all meaningless statements in this country...a life sentence shouldn't come with terms and conditions

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    290 Cowardly Lion
    "it's a question of balance"

    I agree. Many would argue the system is unfairly weighted in favour of the offender with scant regard for the victim or his/her family. Withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights might be a start in redressing this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    Lifers/victims - it's a question of balance. In my view it's all one-sided and in favour of the criminals, ably assisted by the do-gooders and the Courts in Europe especially.

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    286 Truth Logic blah blah blah
    "it is possible to be 100% moron, as evident by moronic HYS comments"

    Sigh............Please, please, please look at my comment 276 before one of your morons turns round and bites you on the nose. Good luck down the pub. Hope you don't meet any recently released killers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    The only people who get life in this country are the victims.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    Is anyone surprised? The bleeding hearts and do gooders would give them all safari holidays! This country puts the yooman rights of criminals above the rights of the innocent who are going to be harmed by their release.

  • Comment number 286.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    Bit slow on this HYS today. The parallel non-story about Prince William is red-hot. Strange sense of priorities amongst the contributors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    do more than 70mph on motorways and they take loads of money from you

    Huhme only did 2 months out of the 8 months

    Yet if you are a Father you get a life sentance form the family courts

    This is a joke, why is noone getting fired over this ???????

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    279. Little_Old_Me -It goes beyond political point scoring, under Labour and despite cash thrown at the Justice system we still had cases of people who should have never been released being released and then going on to commit murder and rape. The fact is we abolished the death penalty and were promised by MPs that life sentences would mean that, shock horror they lied.

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    Only in a joke country like this could a "lifer" be freed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    Hardly surprising; more gross incompetence and/ or shoulder shrugs from our bloated and ineffective Public Sector.


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