Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has overruled the Parole Board’s decision to transfer an offender convicted of murder to an open prison. It is the first time the Justice Secretary has intervened in a high-risk case.

Justice Secretary

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The facts of the case

In 1998, Stephen Ling was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Joanne Tulip. He met her in a pub on Christmas Day 1997, and after returning to his house, stabbed her over 60 times. He also admitted to raping her, but the CPS only pursued a murder charge. The judge set the minimum prison term to 20 years, but this was later reduced to 18 years.

The Parole Board recently considered whether Ling could move to an open prison. Open prisons have much less security with minimal supervision. They are often used at the final step before a prisoner’s release. It provides the offender with a more gradual release back into the community. It also allows the Parole Board to see how an offender will react to conditions that closely resemble a return to ‘normality’. However, the Parole Board also has a duty to protect the public from harm. That is why an open prison transfer should only be recommended if the risk to the public has reduced sufficiently to be manageable in an open prison.

The Parole Board concluded that Ling was a suitable candidate for an open prison transfer. The victim’s mother opposed the move, saying he was still a dangerous man whose actions had been described as ‘sadistic’ by the sentencing judge. Furthermore, he would not be on the sex offender’s register, as he had not been convicted of rape at the time.

The Justice Secretary intervenes

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab then personally intervened in the case. He overruled the Parole Board, meaning Ling will not be moved to an open prison in the near future.

It is unprecedented for the Justice Secretary to veto the Parole Board’s decision. In the past, the power to block transfers to open prisons was delegated to officials. In practise, this power was rarely used. However, there was a policy shift in February 2022 when a life-sentenced prisoner absconded after being transferred to an open prison. Raab then announced that he would oversee the decisions in the most high risk cases.

The Justice Secretary may get even greater powers in the future, as the Parole Board system is currently under review. One option up for debate is whether the Justice Secretary should have the power to veto decisions to release high-risk prisoners. It remains to be seen whether this change in procedure will be implemented.

What does the Parole Board consider?

If a prisoner is nearing the end of his or her minimum term, the Parole Board will consider whether a transfer to an open prison is appropriate. This decision is based on the following factors:

  • The prisoner’s background, the nature and circumstances of any previous convictions
  • The nature and circumstances of the index offence, including any information from the victim’s family
  • Any sentencing comments, probation reports and other relevant reports or material prepared for court
  • Any efforts to address attitudes and behavioural problems that led to the commission of the offence
  • The nature of any offences against prison discipline
  • Attitude to staff and other prisoners
  • Security categorisation and any prison reports in respect of this
  • Medical, psychiatric or psychological considerations
  • Awareness of the index offence and any demonstrable insight
  • Response to positions of trust, including outside activities or escorted absences
  • Any indication of predicted risk

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