Officials in the Department of Justice are concerned that the State could be facing costly legal action from prisoners whose parole hearings have been delayed.Inmates serving sentences of eight years or more, including those serving life sentences, are entitled to have their cases reviewed by the Parole Board to assess if they are eligible for early release. These reviews are frequently delayed by a year or more due to a lack of resources and inefficiencies in the system.
In the UK the practice of suing parole authorities for delayed reviews has become increasingly popular in recent years.
It was recently disclosed that the UK Parole Board has been forced to pay over £1.1 million (€1.22 million) in compensation to prisoners between April 2011 to March 2016 as a result of delayed hearings.
Between 2015 and 2016 there were 463 such cases, up from just 89 the previous year. Claimants were entitled to about £50 per month of delay which applied even if they were eventually turned down for parole.
If the prisoner was released when their case was eventually heard they could claim about £650 per month of delay.
The trend is not matched in Ireland. Since 2000, the Irish Parole Board has been sued 13 times but only once in the past five years. However Department of Justice officials are concerned news of the UK payouts will prompt Irish prisoners to take similar cases arguing that they have been kept in prison longer than necessary because of delays in the system.
In April an internal report was completed for the Irish Prison Service dealing with the management of long-serving prisoners. The report highlights several problems with the current parole system which results in most cases being subject to significant delays.
It is understood the report states there are system-wide inefficiencies. The Parole Board has to sometimes seek individual reports from up to six different agencies such as the Probation Service and housing authorities before it can make a decision.
Sometimes housing and health authorities then report they do not have the facilities to accommodate a released prisoner, resulting in the inmate being kept in prison despite being otherwise suitable for parole.
In 2016 three life-sentence prisoners, who had all served at least 17 years, could not be released because there were not enough supports for them in the community.
“The whole [parole] board agreed they should not be in prison,” Parole Board chairman John Costello said at the time.
The board’s annual report stated: “It was not possible to recommend them for temporary release because the essential community supports were not available. As hundreds of prisoners have serious psychiatric or intellectual disability problems, this is going to become a more regular occurrence.
The new report contains several recommendations for streamlining the parole process. These reforms are likely to be an interim solution pending the passage of the Parole Bill which is currently before the Oireachtas.
The legislation will introduce major reforms to the parole system including putting the Parole Board on a statutory footing and mandating that reviews take place no more than six months from their scheduled date, a recommendation made by the board.
The Bill also gives victims of crime a greater say in the process. The final decision on granting parole will rest with the Parole Board. Currently the Board makes a recommendation to the Minister for Justice who makes the final decision.