Just as the government seems determined to remove expert reports from the parole decision-making process, new research on how parole boards make decisions about domestic abusers demonstrates the profound (but often unacknowledged) role of professional recommendations in the hearing.
My doctoral research analysed all 137 parole decisions from April 2018 to September 2019 involving a male prisoner jailed for abusing a female partner. I also interviewed twenty current parole board members about their experience of decision-making in such cases.
The standout finding from the research was just how closely the recommendations of professionals (namely the offender manager, offender supervisor and psychologist) predicted the parole board’s decision.
The cases broke down into three categories:
- Where the professionals unanimously recommended release, and where the assessed risk (while frequently high) was less imminent. Of 65 cases in this category, the board released 64.
- Where the professionals were almost always unanimous in recommending release (the offender managers sometimes disagreed) and the assessed risks were higher. Out of 25 of these cases, the board released 13 (essentially a 50:50 split).
- Where the professionals opposed release. Of 45 such cases, the board only released 1.
While other, secondary factors were also associated with release (eg the prisoner’s perceived honesty, insight, and relationship with professionals), none were anywhere near as closely associated as the professionals’ recommendations.
Among these secondary factors, the board’s confidence in the offender manager’s risk management plan also stood out: where the board were impressed with the robustness of the plan, they released 65 out of 71 prisoners; where they felt the plan was lacking, they only released 6 out of 21. This reflects the interviews with parole board members: they were more confident in releasing a prisoner when they had confidence in the probation officer and their plan; and when they felt that the recommendations of the offender manager and offender supervisor were reached independently and not reliant on the recommendation of the psychologist – indeed, they bemoaned the tendency for both parole boards and other professionals to ‘put psychologists on a pedestal’.
The key takeaways for probation officers are:
- A prisoner without a professional recommendation in their favour is almost certain to remain in prison. While parole boards may not always agree with professionals’ recommendations to release (though they usually do), recommendations against release amount to an effective veto.
- Risk manageability is more important than risk. In domestic violence cases, the nature of offending interacts with the parole board’s evaluation, not of the level of risk of the offender, but the manageability of that risk. A more chaotic offender may be no less risky than a controlling offender, but they may show more warning signs on their way to future offending (missing appointments, relapsing into substance misuse, and other signs that their lives are spiraling into chaos). An attentive offender manager can pick up on these warning signs and recall them to prison. A more controlling abuser’s reoffending behaviour may be a lot harder to detect, even for the best probation officer and the best risk management plan.
- Where the risk is manageable, the offender manager’s skills and prior work on the case make a big difference in marginal cases. Probation officers should feel empowered in the knowledge that parole boards take notice, and are often swung one way or another, not just by the offender manager’s recommendations but by their professionalism and knowledge of the offender. The board recognise how the privatization of the probation service has undermined officers’ ability to develop relationships with prisoners in many cases.
- Perpetrator Programmes are important because of what they ‘signal’ about the perpetrators who choose to attend them – not because the programmes are effective at reducing risk. Offenders attending perpetrator programmes were more likely to be released than those who did not. However, the significance may be more to do with how attendance provides evidence of the offender’s desire to change, rather than to do with the parole board’s confidence in the effectiveness of the programme per se. So an offender who refuses to attend a programme is deemed a higher risk, not because the programme would have ‘changed’ them, but because their refusal shows a major lack of insight.
Overall, this research shows that any efforts to remove professional expertise from the parole board’s decisions will drastically change the nature and outcomes of the decision-making process, further undermining the professionalism of the probation service. The thesis demonstrates how probation officers with interests in research can conduct useful small-scale studies with limited time but with access to substantial data through their jobs, subject to ethical clearance.
Dr Chris Dyke
Research Fellow, Department of Security and Crime Science, University College London