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CAJ Report July/August 1998

Prisoners applying for early release

The recent Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 has made provision for the early release of prisoners convicted in relation to scheduled offences committed during the confict in Northern Ireland.

As a result prisoners are entitled to apply for early release. This section sets out the qualifying criteria and procedure for seeking release.

Qualifying Criteria

To seek early release a prisoner must satisfy the following criteria:

??(S)he must be serving a sentence passed in Northern Ireland for a scheduled offence committed before 10 April 1998, which was not descheduled by a certificate of the Attorney General. If the prisoner was transferred from England, Scotland or Wales the offence must be equivalent to a scheduled offence. Transferred prisoners can seek certification from the Attorney General in England and Wales or the Lord Advocate in Scotland that their offence is an equivalent offence

? The sentence must be one of life or imprisonment for at least 5 years

? The prisoner must not be a supporter of a terrorist organisation. These are defined by an order of the Secretary of State as the LVF, INLA, Continuity IRA and Real IRA. The Secretary of State may by an Order add to or remove organisations from this list.

? The Sentence Review Commissioners must be satisfied that if released immediately the prisoner is not likely to become a supporter of a terrorist organisation or to become involved in acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland

? If a life sentence prisoner the Sentence Review Commissioners must be satisfied that if released immediately the prisoner is not likely to be a danger to the public.

Procedures

Prisoners can apply to the Sentence Review Commissioners, which is a body of people appointed by the Secretary of State. A panel of Commissioners, who will normally hold any hearing in relation to the application in private, will consider the application. A prisoner may apply for legal aid in respect of any representation before the Commissioners and can apply to call witnesses if they think this is relevant. The rules may permit some proceedings to be conducted in the absence of the prisoner or their representative but if so the Attorney General may appoint a person to represent the prisoners interests in those proceedings. Evidence given in the course of these proceedings will not be admissible in respect of criminal proceedings relating to membership of a proscribed organisation. On receipt of a request from a victim of an offence, or a member of their family, the Secretary of State may provide information about whether a person has made an application for release and what its outcome was. However the Secretary of State shall not provide such information where he or she believes that it would create a danger to the safety of any person.

If release is granted

If the Commissioners decide to grant release then

? If the prisoner is serving a fixed term they should be released on the day after they have served one third of their sentence plus one day for every day of remission lost and not restored under the Prison Rules.

? If the prisoner is serving a life sentence then the Commissioners must specify a day which marks the end of two thirds of the time the person would have been likely to spend in prison. The prisoner is entitled to be released the day after that date.

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