Corrective Services (Parole Board) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill

Posted On: 17 May 2017

I join the debate on the Corrective Services (Parole Board) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill which was introduced on 16 February by the Minister for Corrective Services, referred to the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee of which I am a member for its consideration and the committee reported by 28 April of this year.

Four written submissions were received from stakeholders by the 9 March deadline. These were from the Queensland Homicide Victims’ Support Group, Queensland Advocacy Incorporated, Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence Inc and Sisters Inside Inc. I would like to put on record our thanks for their valuable contributions.

The committee agreed this bill be passed and made a number of comments, in particular in response to potential breaches of fundamental legislative principles. I thank fellow committee members, the secretariat and departmental staff for their deliberations and assistance with the examination of this bill.

In August 2016 the government announced an independent review of the Queensland parole system be undertaken by Mr Walter Sofronoff QC. This was in response to the alleged murder of an 81-year-old woman by a parole prisoner in the month prior: July 2016. This review considered the effectiveness of the Parole Board’s current operations, including its decision-making structure and membership, transparency of Parole Board decision-making, adequacy of existing accountability mechanisms for the parole boards and the parole system generally, factors that would increase an offender’s successful completion of parole and reintegration into the community and enhanced community safety, and lastly the effectiveness of the legislative framework for parole, including court ordered parole in Queensland.

Mr Sofronoff was directed to examine and have regard to best practice in parole systems operating in other Australian jurisdictions, particularly regarding effective ways to manage risk when releasing a person on parole. He was also directed to seek input from relevant experts, including those with knowledge and experience of the criminal justice system, organisations working with offenders, victims’ organisations and academic researchers. In his extensive report Sofronoff acknowledged that those who worked within the system were dedicated people, but the system itself was antiquated and emaciated, a result of neglect over many years. He notes—

The only purpose of parole is to reintegrate a prisoner into the community before the end of a prison sentence to decrease the chance that the prisoner will ever reoffend.

Simply put, in Sofronoff’s terms, ‘parole is just a matter of timing’.

Two viewpoints are put forward, the first being whether parole is effective in supporting a prisoner towards a better way of life and, secondly, whether parole is effective in keeping the community safe from a prisoner reoffending. Research would suggest that paroled prisoners are less likely to reoffend than prisoners released without parole. Sofronoff concurs that it makes no difference which viewpoint is taken.

The parole review report identified systemic inefficiencies in the operation of the three existing parole boards and found substantial room for improvement in the parole system. The Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee report No. 53 of the 55th Parliament states—

The parole review report found that the decision-making of the three boards appeared to be unstructured and not always approached by the whole board on an informed basis, and that material provided to the parole boards before meetings was often long, unstructured, and compiled without careful consideration as to what information was necessary for the board to make its decisions. The parole review also highlighted the lack of full-time board members as a deficiency of the regime.

On 1 December 2016, Mr Sofronoff delivered his report to the government, making 91 recommendations covering nine broad categories. However, the parole review report was not tabled in the House until 16 February 2017, as well as the government’s response to the report which supported in principle 89 of the 91 recommendations. This bill proposes the implementation of recommendation Nos 35 to 61. These relate to the establishment of a new parole board system and the global positioning system or GPS monitoring of parolees.

However, proceeding the parole review report, the Auditor-General’s report No. 4 of 2016-17, Criminal justice system—prison sentences, was tabled in the parliament on 29 November last year. It is important to mention this in the context of a debate on the Corrective Services (Parole Board) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill as there is significant public sentiment around the issue of sentencing and the management of criminals, especially in the wake of a frightening spike in domestic violence cases.

A second report from the Auditor-General was tabled on 26 April this year entitled Criminal justice system—reliability and integration of data. The audit conclusions were damning, leading to media claims that police on the Gold Coast were being pressured to fudge crime figures because of a 66 per cent increase in assaults and overall crime rising by 30 per cent. I have the utmost respect for our hardworking and dedicated police officers and I have said so many times in this place. However, the Auditor-General’s findings must be taken seriously and addressed. Who is applying this pressure to our officers? Is it the Premier? Is it the minister? Is it the commissioner? Findings like this erode public confidence in law enforcement officers and do nothing to enhance our reputation as a safe and friendly tourism destination.

Report No. 14 tabled by the Auditor-General on 26 April, Criminal justice system—reliability and integration of data, came to the following conclusions—

The Queensland Police Service has an unacceptable amount of crime data across the state that is incomplete, inaccurate, and wrongly classified. Contributing to this are officers’ poor understanding or use of data classification rules, poor guidance, inappropriate data classification practices and inadequate quality assurance controls. As a result, reported crime statistics are questionable at best and unreliable at worst, and should be treated with caution.

It is little wonder then that the Gold Coast Bulletin run stories under the headlines ‘Public being misled’ and ‘Grim blue line’, and that commentary was made about police officers using methods that saw some victims withdraw their complaints. Only yesterday the Gold Coast Bulletin ran a story about a woman who claimed she was drugged and raped in her home and said she was discouraged by police from pressing charges.

On page 2 of his report, Sofronoff comments that ‘to a degree, it is necessary to consider sentencing laws when considering parole’. He also presents an economic argument, stating that community supervision is cheaper than imprisonment. That may well be, but community safety is paramount and should not be measured against cost. For too long Labor’s soft-on-crime approach has enabled crime to flourish.

The history of parole in Queensland began in 1937. In 1959 a new statute established a board that was independent of government. It was chaired by a Supreme Court judge and had five other members. A new law was enacted in 1980 and the board contained a similar composition. In 1986, the legislation was amended to permit remission of one-third of a prisoner’s sentence for good behaviour. In 1988 respected businessman, Jim Kennedy, was appointed by the government to review the system of parole and he found many inefficiencies within the system. Kennedy’s recommendations included a two-tier board system whereby one board considered parole of prisoners serving less than five years and another board made decisions about prisoners serving longer than five years. Further legislative changes were made in 1992, 1997 and 2000, before a new act was passed in 2006. At page 4 of his report Sofronoff said that the 2006 act—

... ended conditional release, release to seek and obtain work and home detention and executive ordered resettlement leave. The only form of release was to be by way of parole.

However, a court could now order that a prisoner be released on parole on a fixed date, provided the sentence was less than three years and excluded sexual offenders. According to Sofronoff, this reveals a current system of parole that has returned to the system of 1937 when parole began and little has changed in the past 28 years.

In Queensland, parole orders are made by the court at the time of sentencing, that is, a court ordered parole, or by the Parole Board during the sentence period, that is, a board ordered parole. The Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee report states—

Whether an offender is released on court-ordered or board-ordered parole depends upon the type of offence and the length of the term of imprisonment imposed.

It continues—

When sentencing an offender to a term of imprisonment of more than three years or for a serious violent offence or a sexual offence, the court may fix the date the offender is eligible for release on parole. If the court does not fix a date that the offender is eligible for parole, the offender becomes eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence.

The Auditor-General’s 2016 report on prison sentences concluded that—

Criminal justice entities ... have not been effective in addressing process and system weaknesses identified in previous reviews. As a result, discharge and detention errors occurred at an increased rate over the period we examined.

Between the years of 2004-05 and 2015-16, the criminal justice system discharged in error or unlawfully detained 329 prisoners. This figure includes 91 people discharged in error and 238 people unlawfully detained. It was also noted that there may be more not detected by these systems. This is very worrying and so is the finding that criminal justice entities do not routinely or systemically document their assessment of potential risk to the community or individuals when a prisoner is discharged in error.

Of even greater concern was an article in the Sunday Mail on 7 May by David Murray that revealed 3,167 orders were made through the return of patients from Queensland mental health facilities who were absent without permission. News that 1,387 patients on forensic orders or involuntary treatment orders were charged with offences last financial year adds a whole lot of reasons—1,387 of them—to be alarmed our system is not working.

Incorrect calculation of sentencing can expose the community to risk by releasing prisoners early or the reverse, which is infringing on prisoners’ rights by holding them longer than they are legally entitled to and leaving the state open to unnecessary costs as a result of these scenarios. The expression ‘truth in sentencing’ to many people means most prisoners should serve most of their sentences. The term is viewed as an attempt to satisfy a society’s sense that serious wrongdoing deserves a penalty determined by a court.

If time has been served on remand awaiting court hearings prisoners can leave court straight after their sentence. There has been considerable media reporting of magistrates and judges facing backlogs of cases due to an increase in crime and a shortage of appointed judiciary. Add to that the findings of Auditor-General’s report No. 14 that I mentioned earlier about data errors in police crime figures and people can see what a mess Labor, with their turn a blind eye approach, have made of law and order issues.

Currently, there are three parole boards in Queensland—the Queensland Parole Board and two regional parole boards. The Queensland Parole Board decides applications for parole from prisoners sentenced to a period of imprisonment of eight or more years or who have been declared to be convicted of a serious violent offence. The Central and Northern Queensland Regional Parole Board and the Southern Queensland Regional Parole Board decide applications for parole orders from all other prisoners. The bill proposes to replace Queensland’s three parole boards with a single board responsible for all decision-making with regard to parole in Queensland—the Parole Board Queensland, which will be based in Brisbane.

Sofronoff acknowledges a massive proportion of prisoners suffer from mental illnesses and are addicted to substances. He says there are no known substitution programs for methylamphetamine users as opposed to opiate users, but even if there were the number available is woefully inadequate. What programs are on offer are frequently full and prisoners have to go onto waiting lists which makes it impossible to satisfy parole conditions that stimulate completion of these programs.

Mr Sofronoff places the blame of failing to provide money for these programs at the feet of successive governments. It is worthwhile remembering that Labor has been in power for 16 of the past 19 years in Queensland. It is also worth noting that recommendations 17 to 31 are for rehab programs and drug misuse programs but are not included in this bill.

Sofronoff found various anomalies, particularly where relevant legislation is found in several different acts and deals with specific problems where some of the provisions actually worked against each other. Also when a prisoner makes written application for parole the prisoner must face a panel of Corrective Services officers. It was found some lacked specific qualifications and there was inadequate preparation time for panel members.

The analysis of a commonly used risk of reoffending screening tool, which consists of four to six items to be answered and then a numerical score is collated, was deemed inappropriate for what it was meant to achieve. The creators of the tool—two academics from Griffith University—make it clear in the manual that the tool is not intended to be used to assess offenders for the purpose of parole eligibility or assessments of dangerousness. Rather it is intended to be used only to determine which prisoners should be subjected to a higher level of services. Sofronoff cites this misunderstanding of data to be a grave defect in the current system.

Victoria’s parole model was developed from reforms in 2013 and has seen benefits such as a heightened sense of professionalism amongst officers and also a greater sense of job satisfaction which makes for better outcomes all round. Understaffing and very high workloads were given as further deficiencies in the current system. In Queensland an officer could have 100 case loads whereas in Victoria the number would be 10 to 15 if managing serious offenders or 25 to 35 if managing less serious offenders. That is a gross anomaly.

I note the shadow minister’s intention to move an amendment in relation to the LNP policy of no-body no-parole and also recommendation 87 in the Sofronoff report. Now is not the time to be dithering, and yet that is what Labor is doing by omitting this important recommendation. I urge honourable members on both sides and the crossbenchers to support the LNP’s amendment which is supported by the Sofronoff report and countless victims who are suffering unnecessary and added torment in not knowing where the deceased person’s body lies. The Queensland Homicide Victims’ Support Group in their submission supported the no-body no-parole policy.

I am genuinely troubled by the amount of crime that we are witnessing on the Gold Coast, where I have lived for 30 years. The frequency and severity of many of them are deeply worrying. In just 12 months 798 people in Queensland have been charged with the relatively new offence of non-fatal strangulation. That is 66 acts of potentially deadly attacks perpetrated every month, and that is just the ones that we hear about. Honourable members, we are well overdue for an overhaul of Queensland’s parole system and diversity of members on the new board.

Welcome from Jann

As the State Member for Currumbin since 2004 we have achieved much together to make the place we call home an even better and safer community.

It truly is an honour to serve the caring and connected residents of Currumbin.

Your thoughts and concerns matter to me and I look forward to continuing to be a strong voice on your behalf.

My electorate office staff and I are here to help you with state government issues.

Kind regards

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