Jon Venables, with his co-defendant Robert Thompson, was convicted of the murder of toddler James Bulger in 1993. Both defendants were only 10 years old when the offence was committed, and so were given the only sentence children between the ages of 10 and 18 are eligible for when convicted of murder: detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure, pursuant to section 90 of the Power of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.
Venables was in custody for the offence of murder until 2001, when he was released on a life licence.
Whilst this is a form of life sentence, life sentences in this jurisdiction do not necessarily mean that the offender will spend the rest of his life in custody. Rather, most life sentences are structured in the following way: the sentencing judge sets a minimum term (also known as a ‘tariff’) which the offender must serve in custody. Upon its expiry, the offender will be considered for release by the Parole Board. If the offender is deemed suitable for release, he is released from custody, but will remain on a life licence. This means that the individual remains liable to recall to custody for the rest of his life. The only type of life sentence which literally means life in custody is the whole life order sentence, but these are extremely rare and, in fact, there are only a handful of prisoners currently serving this sentence. Such prisoners will never be considered by the Parole Board for release.
Venables was in custody for the offence of murder until 2001, when he was released on a life licence. He was then recalled back to custody in 2010 for breach of his licence and subsequently convicted of child pornography offences. He served a custodial sentence in relation to this offence, and it has now been confirmed that he is due to be released.
There are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding the issue of when prisoners serving custodial sentences will be released from custody, particularly those with life sentences. This article will seek to explain what parole is and who decides when an individual serving an indeterminate sentence (a ‘lifer’) is released from prison.
What is parole?
Quite simply, parole is the early release of a prisoner from custody. With the indeterminate life sentence, there is no automatic right to release. Rather, the judge, when sentencing, will stipulate the minimum time an offender must serve in prison before he can be considered for release. Believe it or not, all custodial sentences, other than whole life orders, contain a possibility of early release.
Pre-tariff Parole Board reviews
Before the lifer’s minimum term has expired, he will be subject to an initial review by the Parole Board. This review is not to answer the question as to whether he is suitable for release, but whether he should be transferred to an open prison or a lower security prison. Re-categorisation to lower prison security categories is essential for individuals to progress in prison.
Second and subsequent reviews
Upon expiry of the minimum term, the question for the Parole Board when the offender comes before it is: is this individual suitable for release? Life sentenced prisoners are entitled to a Parole Board review at least every two years under s.28(7) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. This piece of legislation requires the Secretary of State to refer all lifers to the Parole Board once the minimum term in custody has been served.
Assessment for release
The Parole Board gains the information about the prisoner which is required to answer this question from various sources, including:
- The prisoner’s parole dossier (which contains the documents considered below).
- Additional reports and opinions from prison staff, probation officers and prison psychologists.
- Representations forwarded by the prisoner himself.
- Evidence adduced at an oral hearing.
What is the test for release?
The test for release is contained within section 28(6)(b) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. It states that the test for release is that the Parole Board must be:
satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined.
The court in R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Benson (no. 2) (1988) The Independent 16 November, formulated this test in the following way:
If the risk to the public is the test, risk must mean risk of dangerousness. Nothing else will suffice. It must mean there is a risk of [the offender] repeating the sort of offence for which the life sentence was originally imposed, in other words, risk to life and limb.
Schedule 8, Part B of the Parole Board Rules 2004 (as amended) stipulates that the following reports are required for consideration by the Parole Board:
The test for release is contained within section 28(6)(b) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997.
- Pre-trial and pre-sentence reports considered by the sentencing judge on the circumstances of the offence.
- Current reports on the prisoner’s risk factors, reduction in risk and compliance with sentence plans.
- Any current home circumstances report, prepared by a probation officer, including information on the following: family circumstances and attitudes; alternative options if the offender cannot return home; opportunity for employment on release; local community’s attitude (if known); concerns of the victim; attitude to index offence; response to previous periods of supervision on licence.
- Efforts made by the offender to address his offending behaviour, including attendance and completion of offending behaviour programmes.
- The offender’s attitude whilst in prison, in relation to both staff and other prisoners.
- The nature and circumstances of any prison discipline offences.
- Past licence revocations.
- Risks the offender poses to other persons, including the victim and their family.
Why has Jon Venables been released from prison?
The murder of James Bulger still evokes emotion and dismay from the general public. At the time Venables was originally released, many questioned and criticised the criminal justice system and believed it was too early for him to be released. Many felt that when Venables was recalled to custody, their scathing critique of the laxity of the English sentencing law had been justified.
Venables has been released from prison once again because the test for release has been met. He is no longer considered to be ‘dangerous’ or a ‘risk to life and limb’. The Parole Board has found that there is no risk of Venables repeating the sort of offence for which the life sentence was originally imposed. Sectors of the general public may disagree with the decision. People may not understand why someone who has not only been convicted of murder, but also subsequently recalled to custody, can be considered safe for release. However, the Parole Board is a specialist tribunal and considers an array of reports and expert opinions when assessing risk. It has found that currently, and given all the information before it, it is not necessary for the protection of the public for Jon Venables to be detained in custody. It can only be speculated that despite the fact that Venables was recalled to custody for the commission of a further offence, his progress whilst serving this sentence has been exceptional, and he has support networks ready for him when he is once again in the community. Venables is due to be released imminently with another new identity.