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Q+A: David Carruthers Interviewed By Paul Holmes

Sunday 5th July 2009: Q+A’s Paul Holmes interviews Parole Board chairman, Judge David Carruthers.

Points of interest:
- Starting parole hearings two-thirds into an offender’s sentence would be “easier” on victims
- Prisoners are 2-3 times less likely to re-offend if they are released on parole
- Four members of the Parole Board had a family member murdered
- The Parole Board declined 72% of applications last year

The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning’s Q+A can be seen on tvnz.co.nz at,
http://tvnz.co.nz/q-and-a-news

DAVID CARRUTHERS interviewed by PAUL HOLMES

PAUL This morning a man who heads a group of people required to consider what is essentially a matter of public safety, he is Judge David Carruthers who's Chairman of the Parole Board. Now since the Graeme Burton fiasco of course and the murder of young father Karl Kuchenbecker, the Parole Board has endured intense public examination, some even question the very nature of parole, it's probably fair to say. Most of us however know little about the workings of the Parole Board. There's been quite a lot of debate about parole in this country for several years now, especially as I say since the Graeme Burton business, and some people of course I think the ACT Party would like to abolish parole as a part of our justice system.

With us from Wellington Judge David Carruthers, Chairman of the Parole Board, good morning. Why do we have parole?

DAVID CARRUTHERS – Parole Board Chair
We have parole and have had it for many many years because the managed release of prisoners back to the communities with a right to recall them if things go wrong has shown internationally to be between two and three times more effective in preventing reoffending than dropping them out at the end of a sentence.

PAUL Well indeed in most countries is there parole?

DAVID Yes there is, well certainly all civilised countries.

PAUL In most western countries alright. But the concern Judge Carruthers that some people have is that in New Zealand if you're sentenced to more than two years gaol you are eligible for parole after serving only a third of that sentence, why a third?

DAVID Well that’s what the law says at the moment, it's either a third or the minimum parole period set by the sentencing court, sometimes as you know it's more than that.

PAUL Yeah but what I'm saying is if you get nine years why don’t you do nine years?

DAVID Well for the reasons I've just said, because a managed release is more effective, but we are required by law to see people for parole at a third as you’ve said. That’s usually the beginning of the journey Paul and very few people are released at their one third. I think our average release is something like well over two thirds, so there's quite a journey usually for release for prisoners we see.

PAUL You mean people don’t really get out until they’ve done about two thirds?

DAVID That’s about the average.

PAUL You examine several thousand cases per year, what percentage are allowed parole, what percentage are turned down?

DAVID Right, 72% declined last year, so a reasonably small percentage and often toward the end of their sentence for the reasons I've mentioned.

PAUL You see if you generally release people starting at about two thirds of their sentence, would you be happy if the Parole Board was not able to see people until they’ve done two thirds, this would satisfy people of course no doubt who think that people get out too quickly?

DAVID Well as you probably know there's legislation which was passed last year changing the minimum period to two thirds, that’s not in effect yet and whatever the law requires that’s a matter for government, so if it says two thirds of course we'll do that. The only point I make is that that will mean that that’s the starting point for the journey for the one third, which is presently the case.

PAUL Yes the two thirds was brought in last year, two thirds of your sentence before parole, has that been thrown out this year?

DAVID No it's still the law but it was never designed to come into effect until the Sentencing Guideline Council also came into effect, and this government has said it's not going to have the Sentencing Guideline Council, so I'm not sure what will happen about that.

PAUL Would two thirds make us safer?

DAVID That’s really hard to say. I don’t think so because our guide will still be undue risk, so we'll be making the same assessment as we presently do. It might mean however that for victims it is a little easier since prisoners who have affected their lives won't be seen so early.

PAUL Well that’s right, because at the moment with the one third regime before we can apply for parole, you might not let people out until they’ve done two thirds or even more of their sentence, but every year the victims have to come along and relive the…

DAVID Well they don’t have to, but many choose to, and some of them choose to because they're honouring the memory of someone that they’ve lost, and it's very tough on them there's no doubt about that.

PAUL Who are the Parole Board?

DAVID We sit in two types of boards. All round the prisons of this country a board of three sit regularly every week, and that’s chaired by a judge, or retired judge and two community members, and then I chair an extended board for the lifers which consists of two judges, a forensic psychiatrist and three lay members.

PAUL Some of the lay members I understand might be victims of terrible crime.

DAVID I think we've had four members of the Parole Board who've had family members murdered, and they're all people of enormously varied experience who've lived lives in New Zealand, suffered the same sort of joys and tragedies that all of us suffer, and so they’ve had a huge experience of life all of them.

PAUL What would you say to those who say of the Parole Board that you're do-gooders, you're a soft touch?

DAVID Well I'd say to them that’s not the case, and the statistics about how many we release and at what time show that to be the case. I hope however we're open to being fair about the people we see and give them a fair go, and you mentioned Burton. We see victims of course all the time who remind us about Burton, and we see prisoners who keep on saying to us now I'm not Burton give me a fair go. So our business in the middle of all that is to be fair, but to think constantly about the safety of the communities, and we do that very seriously.

PAUL What kind of information do you get before you go into the hearing?

DAVID Enormous amounts, very, we have huge files to read, done electronically now, we have sentencing notes, we have presentence reports, we have psychiatric reports and psychological assessments. We have all the information we get from victims and that’s usually very helpful. We have information from the offenders themselves and their families. We have stacks of it, and then we have an interview process we go through. So we end up with enormous amounts of information about each of these people.

PAUL What is your success rate – in terms of is it true that a paroled prisoner has less likelihood of going back inside?

DAVID Yes I think that certainly is true, and that’s the international research which supports that, and I think all the Parole Boards that we have contact with now all round the world show that when it's done intelligently and well, there is a much greater chance of preventing reoffending, than automatic release at the end of the time without the support.

PAUL In New Zealand does a life sentence mean a life sentence?

DAVID Yes it does, and if we release someone who's been convicted of murder, who was sentence to life imprisonment, it means that they can be recalled at any time up to their death, and that has happened.

PAUL So a murderer released on parole after – what would be the average custodial sentence for a murderer?

DAVID It's now probably an average of about 17 years in prison I think for an average.

PAUL So after 17 years the murderer may get parole but he's on parole until the very last day of his life yes – so if he wants to up sticks and move from Tauranga to Invercargill to life, he still at the age of 93 has to get your permission?

DAVID Not our permission, get permission of the Probation Service usually, but you're quite right, up to the time of his death he can be recalled.

PAUL Would you personally like to see the eligibility for parole extending up to two thirds, the first time the Parole Board sees the prisoner?

DAVID Right, I don’t have a personal view. We're the servants of the law, we'll do what the law requires. All I can say at the moment is we do see victims who are very distressed when someone's been in custody on remand for quite some time, gets sentenced and then they're suddenly seen for parole, and that’s very hard on them, but I don’t have a view about which is better, it's a political matter.

PAUL Judge Carruthers you're very keen on the idea of halfway houses for prisoners, can you explain that briefly?

DAVID Well I can because I went to Canada last year, looked at their concept of halfway houses, they’ve got about 200 of them throughout the country and what they do is they use halfway houses as bridges back to the community for prisoners, so that they're not just dropped back into quite tough circumstances for life for many of them, they're eased back in a supervised way through the halfway house concept, so I was impressed with that.

PAUL Because as somebody told me the other day what prisoners need when they come out is something to do, something to live on, somewhere to life, someone to talk to, and I spose it's quite different for prisoners who have been in gaol a very long time to have any or all of those qualities.

DAVID I think it is and that’s a pretty simple formula for success which probably is a formula for all of us, but sometimes those things have to be artificially constructed, because some prisoners who have been in for a long time don’t have family or friends left, and have to have those created again for them. So that is the challenge I agree.

PAUL I thank you very much for joining us on the programme Chairman of the Parole Board Judge David Carruthers.

ENDS

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