EDITORIAL: Prison Release Board must be transparent
The legislation approved last week in the House of Assembly to introduce a parole system in Barbados is long overdue. It could set the right tone for the rehabilitation of prisoners and their successful reintegration into this small society. It will also be the launch pad for broader penal reform.
Central to the parole system will be the Prison Release Board, which will make the decisions on who can gain their freedom. This board must be one of which Barbadians are aware and understand what it does.
The board must not be restricted to only those actively involved in the criminal justice system – prison officers, policemen, members of the judiciary, criminal defence lawyers and probation officers – and politicians. It must operate in a transparent manner and be held accountable since the public must not be saddled with a system which does not answer for its actions.
Accurate and thorough record-keeping must be maintained relating to its decisions and while we are not expecting the board to answer or justify its decision in every case, it should be anticipated that some reviews will be questioned.
Not to justify its actions may only create unnecessary problems and pitfalls for the board. Undeniably, board members will be asked to make crucial decisions for both prisoner and society; to give someone a second chance while safeguarding the public. The board will undoubtedly have a very difficult job.
There may be the need to tweak sentencing guidelines with the advent of a parole system as the board, acting on advice, may want to deviate from existing principles.
The recommendation that this board presents an annual report to the Attorney General is laudable but that needs to go further. The report should be tabled in Parliament, and made accessible to the public. It is a document which researchers, writers and activists in civil society will want to review.
It should also be made clear what the terms of office for members of the board is and whether the length of their appointments in the first instance will be staggered to avoid the possibility of losing all of them at the end of a term.
Training must be a key factor for both board members and parole officers who must make the system work. The Attorney General’s Office could seek help in this area from either the United States National Parole Resource Centre or the American Probation and Parole Association.
Parole is not without its risks and it is inevitable that someone deemed rehabilitated will run afoul of the law again. But this must not be a condemnation of the efforts at parole. Barbadians need to give it their full support.