Safety parole board's criterion

Community safety is the most important consideration for the New Zealand Parole Board when it makes a parole decision.

The parole board was an independent statutory body which considers offenders serving a sentence of more than two years in prison, for release on parole.

According to the 2011-12 annual report the total number of hearings held by the board was 9427, and the number of individuals seen, 4995.

Judge Warwick Gendall QC said the board's role was not to determine whether or not an offender had been ''punished enough'' or whether or not the sentence was long enough.

Matters such as personal or general deterrence were not for the board to take into account, and were the function of the sentencing court.

In its (July 12) decision to release convicted fraudster Michael Swann later this month, the board ''carefully evaluated all relevant legal issues necessary when making a parole decision, including the views of the victims''.

''The most important consideration for the New Zealand Parole Board is community safety,'' he said.

The law calls for the board to exercise judgement - to assess whether an offender poses an undue risk to the community.

But in doing that, it must observe the law ''that an offender must not be detained longer than is consistent with the safety of the community, and that they must not be subject to release conditions or detention conditions that are more onerous, or last longer, than is consistent with the safety of the community''.

''It is a matter of law that once the parole eligibility date is reached, it being fixed by statute or the court, the board must consider whether an offender is safe to release on parole conditions.''

The board always had concerns for all victims and anyone was able to make a submission to the board about an offender.

However only registered victims were automatically advised of a pending hearing, sent information about the offender on request from the Department of Corrections, and advised of the outcome.

In all its considerations the board must, under the Parole Act 2002, recognise the rights of victims, and due weight is given to victim submissions and any restorative justice outcomes, he said.

The parole board has around 40 members. About half are judges while the rest are non-judicial members.

All members are appointed by the Governor-General, on the recommendation of the Attorney-general.

The members consider cases in panels of three, made up of a convener and two lay members, at the 18 prisons around the country.

In addition, every two months the board convenes an extended board, which may have as many as five members, to consider those serving life sentences and preventive detainees who are eligible for parole.

This panel is also convened by a judge and at least three community members, who can include a forensic psychiatrist.

- hamish.mcneilly@odt.co.nz

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