Newspaper reports say the Ministry of Justice has proposed four major measures for prison policy reform, one of which is “to make the parole procedure transparent, allow victims and the community to participate and provide judicial remedy for parole decisions.”
The ministry deserves praise for its initiative, but — in addition to the transparency that it wants to implement in the parole system — two other aspects also need improvement, namely fairness and the predictability of outcomes for prisoners. Only then can the goal of parole system reform be achieved.
The parole application and approval system has a greater influence on inmates than anything else. However, it has often been the target of public criticism, because assessment involves many conditions that are subjectively judged by a parole board.
This results in all kinds of variables affecting approval or denial, even to the extent that assessment standards vary from prison to prison, depending on the attitudes of prison directors. The lack of objective standards makes the parole system not only unfair, but also unpredictable. This is where the real problem lies.
To achieve transparency in the system, the ministry proposed to assess prisoners according to the circumstances of their crimes, their post-crime attitude and behavior and their risk of recidivism.
However, assessment of offenders’ post-crime attitude and behavior involves the opinions of victims and the community, so there is still uncertainty arising from subjective factors.
Furthermore, if parole decisions still consider “substantial evidence of remorse” as an important (but subjective) factor, and if parole board members who are not corrections experts are expected to — in a very short meeting — examine a prisoner who they do not know much about and determine whether they are remorseful, then even if the procedure is transparent, it does not really meet the requirements of fairness and predictability. It is a pity that the reform measures do not get to the heart of the problem.
For the parole system to achieve fairness and predictability, it will be necessary to correct numerous weaknesses that have hitherto existed. The ministry could consider the following six points when thinking about how to reform the parole system:
First, to establish standards regarding “substantial evidence of remorse,” to firmly establish legal fairness and predictability.
Second, parole board members should be given ample time to examine applications, and prisoners should be given the chance to present a verbal argument, thus achieving the purpose of substantial examination.
Third, as stipulated in Article 75 of the Statute of Progressive Execution of Penalty (行刑累進處遇條例): “Where a level one prisoner is found eligible for legal parole, the appertaining petition should be filed with the competent authorities as soon as possible,” with no need to obtain the decision of a parole board.
Fourth, the time a prisoner must wait to reapply for parole is too long and should be shortened.
Fifth, consistent times should be set for parole assessments and the implementation of approvals to prevent time differences for the release of inmates from different prisons, thus achieving substantial fairness.
Sixth, a time limit should be set for judicial remedy, thus preventing the remedial process from becoming a mere formality.