Parole: the legacy of a progressiveHome Secrtary

As murders by terrorists recently released from prison hit the headlines a few weeks ago,  I was reminded of my first job after graduating in 1965 - as a lowly assistant research officer at the Home Office Research Unit.

There was excitement in the air with a new Labour government and prime minister Harold Wilson's appointment of Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary. Jenkins' aim was to build "a civilised society", with measures like the ab olition of capital punishment and theatre censorship, the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, relaxation of divorce law, suspension of birching and the liberalisation of abortion law.

Jenkins also began to think about introducing parole. At the time, some of us in the Research Unit were working on the nearest equivalent at the time: the prison hostel scheme. Our job was to attend, observe and assess the monthly hostel board meetings in D wing at HM prison, Wormwood Scrubs, where prisoners serving from 5 years to life sentences (including KGB spy George Blake who was five years into his 42 year sentence - we were scheduled to, but didn't, attend on the day he escaped).

It was called the 'prison hostel scheme' because, for the last six months before their date of release, they could treat the prison as a hostel from which they would go out to work in paid employment. It was, in other words, a very innovative rehabilitation scheme and the nearest thing to parole that existed at the time.

After attending and observing quite a lot of hostel-selection board meetings, my research came up with an interesting result. The chances of those  selected for the hostel-scheme within three years would have been better had the chairman of the selection-committee spun a coin instead of presiding over several hours 'carefully dicussing' every application with the eight other people at the meeting.

The reason was that the committee liked inmates who were professional criminals like thieves, house-breakers, burglars and robbers. They did not like white-collar inmates like fraudsters or sex-offenders and were ambivalent about lifers serving sentences for murder. So they systematically granted places on the scheme to those who were by far the most likely to reoffend within three yease of release.

Although I wrote a report explaining all this, I doubt if it ever got as far as the Home Secretary who opted for parole-selection boards thar were very similar in composition to hostel-selection boades.

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