5 Oct 2015

Parole changes better for victims, says board chair

6:17 pm on 5 October 2015

Victims will get a better deal under a toughened up law that gives convicted criminals fewer chances to gain parole, the Parole Board chairman says.

A cell block at Auckland South Corrections Facility.

Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

The Parole Amendment Act which took effect a month ago means the Parole Board does not have to see every offender every 12 months, and instead is able to fix the interval between hearings at up to two years.

Board chairman Justice Warwick Gendall, a former High Court judge, said the changes would significantly reduce the amount of what he called unnecessary hearings, meaning victims would be better off.

"The fact was and is that each time the offender comes up for parole, there's an anxiety in the victims... oh my God, is he possibly going to get out, they're frightened, concerned and they're anxious.

"What's happened with the [Parole] Amendment Act is that it has given the board the power to now say, well we won't see you for up to two years," said Justice Gendall.

For inmates serving sentences over 10 years for crimes such as murder or serious sex offences, the Board can postpone seeing them for up to five years.

Josie and John Harrisson were killed their Te Akau home in 1994, in what the Parole Board called an appalling execution. The couple's daughter Margaret and her husband Jock Jamieson have attended more than 20 parole hearings for the killers, Leith Ray and Gresham Marsh, who and are serving life sentences.

Mr Jamieson said it was hard to get on with living when a parole hearing lingers in the air, every year.

"It's a form of revictimisation on the victim. You have to sit down and go through the details of the offence against your family member and find something else if you can to say if you wish to see that they stay in prison a bit longer," Mr Jamieson said.

Judge Gendall said a special hearing was held to inform an inmate serving time for crimes such as murder or rape that a five-year postponement on their parole hearing would be imposed.

He said this could be challenged by the offender, but he said victims should not be too concerned about that.

"The offenders can ... apply to review the board's decision, and if that is declined they may appeal by postponement order to the High Court - but that's not very often, I haven't seen it.

"On recalls they can go to the High Court, but by and large unless there's an error of law, the discretion vested in the Parole Board is not challenged outside our own review system," he said.

Parole Board hearings reached a new high of nearly 5973 over the past year.

Gil Elliot whose daughter, Sophie was murdered by Clayton Weatherston at her parents' home in 2009, never wants to see Weatherston paroled.

He said sometimes the parole board got it wrong when granting an inmate release.

"The Parole Board get a lot of flack because they appear to let people out when they shouldn't let them out.

"Like [Graeme] Burton for instance who killed Karl Kuchenbecker, that sticks in the core of a lot of people, and the Parole Board made an obvious mistake there," Mr Elliot said.

Burton killed Mr Kuchenbecker in the Wainuiomata hills in 2007 while on parole after serving a life sentence for an earlier murder.

Judge Gendall said it was very rare for a murderer when released to kill again.

"My information is that out of 150 murderers paroled over the last 13 years, there's only been one who has gone on to murder again - but that's one too many of course," he said.

The changes to the Parole Amendment Act also allow the board to give inmates longer periods to undertake and complete rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.

Change 'irresponsible'

An advocate for prisoners said the new law impedes prisoners' rehabilitation.

Julia Whaipooti, chair of criminal law reform lobby group JustSpeak, said the change was a sign of the Government abandoning hope for prisoners.

She said it was irresponsible because it was a hollow change unsupported by evidence that it would reduce the rate of re-offending.

Ms Whaipooti said the question of victims' role in parole hearings needed addressing because 86 percent of victims did not want to be part of the process.

And a Wellington parole lawyer said the new law gave convicted criminals fewer chances to gain parole. and will lead to prisoners losing hope and keep jails more full for longer.

Judith Fyfe said without yearly parole board hearings prisoners would lose motivation, be less likely to finish programmes and their rehabilitation will be hindered.

Ms Fyfe said often prisons would tell prisoners to wait for their parole hearing before they make decisions on programmes.

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