Offenders not 'properly risk-assessed' before release
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.
"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."