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Opinion & Analysis

#ThinkingAllowed: Parole decision puts spotlight on justice system and public confidence

I’m not a lawyer and despite the high number of them in Gibraltar, neither is the majority of the local population. Therefore, as people with limited knowledge of the law, is it wrong of us to have questions about the rules for parole?
In Gibraltar prisoners can apply for parole after serving a third of their sentence. It means that whether we agree or not with the outcome of individual cases, convicted criminals have this right. The responsibility then lies with the Parole Board whose members deal with the responsibility of deciding if freedom is granted or denied to them.
The release on parole of convicted fraudster Isaac Marrache has put the issue firmly in the spotlight. Like other prisoners it was his legal right to apply for release, but many seem to be grappling to come to terms with how a seven year prison sentence can mean much less in reality.
Other prisoners have been released in the past having committed crimes of violence or offences which, while not on the same scale, still had an impact on victims and the public purse.
But it is Isaac Marrache’s release that has sparked debate in homes, offices, bars, restaurants and online. Perhaps more so because of the high profile nature of the case and the sums of money involved, both in terms of the crime committed and the cost of taking this case to court.
The decision to grant parole in this case has become entangled in a legal wrangle between Puisne Judge Adrian Jack and the Minister for Justice, Neil Costa, and flared into a political row between the Gibraltar Government and the Opposition.
In the UK prisoners need to serve at least half of their sentence before they become eligible for parole, unlike the system that applies in Gibraltar.
So, is there a need to change the law? Should we be like the UK? Even across the UK not everyone has agreed with the process and proposals for reforms over the past decade. The aim should always be to achieve as much transparency as possible and a regime that can be easily understood by the public, and more importantly by victims.
The Gibraltar Government has said that it’s no secret that Minister for Justice Neil Costa has “proposed in two separate interviews the need to urgently consider reform of Gibraltar’s sentencing laws and whether a prisoner should be required to serve a longer portion of a sentence before becoming eligible for parole”.
It seems from the recent statement by Number 6 that you may be able to have your say in some way, if and when any plans for reforms go ahead.
The Government statement says changes would require “serious work, requiring mature and earnest consideration, by all relevant stakeholders, not least, the Executive, the Legislature, the Judiciary, the Bar Council, law-enforcement bodies and, naturally, the public”.
Parole board meetings are private because they consider personal circumstances and though we normally learn of the outcomes the internal considerations are not public. The Prison Act says that “without prejudice to the jurisdiction of the courts, in the exercise of their functions the Parole Board and its members shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority”.
But what is the public’s perception of the Parole Board’s role and most importantly its decisions? Perhaps the fact it is not conducted in public makes it difficult to understand.
In 2001 author Jeffrey Archer was convicted of perjury in the UK and jailed for four years (he served two years and two days). Ironically, Archer had years earlier entitled one of his short stories ‘Crime Pays’.
Is this how people are left feeling when a prisoner is released early from the original sentence? It’s a very dangerous situation for any community. If people stop having full trust in the legal system to help put right what others have done wrong, there can be little faith in a future for a fair and just system. People’s willingness to co-operate with legal authorities may also be affected.
Decisions like these are bound to come under scrutiny but the independence and reputation of the Parole Board must remain intact. It’s not only in the courtroom where ‘Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done’ - a real aim to which the justice system, as a whole, subscribes.
The Parole Board has to deliver fairness and justice. The public needs to be confident that is always the case.