Victim Submissions to Parole Boards: The Agenda for Research

Article excerpt

A feature of criminal justice policy in the latter half of the twentieth century was a rise in the victims' rights movement. Various measures were introduced to improve the treatment of victims in the criminal justice system. One way in which victims became involved in correctional procedures was by making submissions to parole boards concerning release decisions affecting those who perpetrated offences against them.

This paper describes the use of victim submissions to parole boards in Australia, and focuses on how one state (Tasmania) has implemented the use of such submissions. Certain policy implications and the need for further research are also identified.

Adam Gravear

Director

The parole system involves releasing prisoners from gaol to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community in accordance with the terms of sentences imposed by the courts. The basis for parole release decisions has varied across both time and jurisdiction. For example, early systems in the United States used release as a reward for good behaviour (Proctor 1999) and some modern systems provide for parole as an entitlement after a specified minimum term of imprisonment has been served. Federal offenders serving sentences of between three and 10 years, for example, are entitled to release after the non-parole period has transpired.1

Nevertheless, many offenders must be assessed by a parole board before being granted release on parole. In Australia, the state and territory parole boards are generally chaired by a judicial officer and may include corrections officials, medical and other experts, police officers and community representatives. The parole boards are created as authorities independent of the courts and corrections departments, however board membership is dominated by judicial officers and corrections officials, so just how independent they really are from those institutions is questionable.

When deciding parole, consideration is generally given to factors such as the offender's risk of reoffending, the degree to which the offender's behaviour has been addressed, and the adequacy of release plans (Hood & Shu te 2000). While it has been common for parole boards to give consideration to the likely effect of an offender's release on the victim,2 direct representations by such victims have become an increasingly common practice (Bernat, Parsonage & Helfgott 1994). Victim submissions are almost standard procedure in the United States, but very little is known about victim involvement in Australia.

A victim submission to a parole board is a statement, written or oral, that expresses a victim's views concerning the offence or the offender. Some jurisdictions allow only victim impact statements; that is, statements about the effect of the crime upon the victim. Other jurisdictions allow victims to express their further concerns about the offender, the likely effect of the offender's release or opinions about the offender, and whether parole should be granted at the time the parole board makes its decision.

Prior Research

In the United States, Parsonage, Bernat and Helfgott (1992) conducted a pilot study into the effect of victim submissions upon parole decisions. The authors studied parole data from 1989 in the state of Pennsylvania and divided the 3,559 parole decisions into two groups: cases in which a victim impact statement was present and cases in which one was not. The authors then randomly selected 100 cases from each group. Various data were collated, including offence variables (such as type, seriousness and plea) and offender variables (such as ethnicity, gender, occupation and education).

The study found that parole was refused in 43 per cent of the victim impact statement cases and seven per cent of the nonstatement cases. This contrasted with the board's own decisionmaking guidelines that suggested parole should have been denied to 10 per cent of the victim impact statement cases and seven per cent of the non-statement cases. …