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(2002) Some remarks on current work in progress on conditional release within the Council of Europe

Mise en ligne : 23 juillet 2002

Dernière modification : 29 avril 2007

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ESC / Toledo, 2002
(Sentencing, Corrections and Alternatives to incarceration / Mr Roy Walmsley)

Models of Conditional Release in Europe

Introduction : " Some remarks on current work in progress on conditional release within the Council of Europe "
by Mr. Pierre V. Tournier

Translated from the French by Helen Arnold

In September 1999, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on prison overcrowding and prison population inflation. The idea was to combat these through a multifactor approach involving all aspects of the criminal justice process. These range from considering " the possibility of decriminalising certain types of offence or reclassifying them so that they do not attract penalities entailing the deprivation of liberty " to the development of measures which would reduce the portion of the prison sentence actually served in detention, with particular emphasis on conditional release.

Its recommendations 22 to 26 are reproduced below :

"22. In order to make community sanctions and measures credible alternatives to short terms of emprisonment, their effective implementation should be ensured, in particular through :

- the provision of the infrastructure for the execution and monitoring of such community sanctions, not least in order to give judges and prosecutors confidence in their effectiveness ; and

- the development and use of reliable risk-prediction and risk-assessment techniques as well as supervision strategies, with a view to identifying the offender’s risk to relapse and to ensuring public protection and safety.

23. The development of measures should be promoted which reduce the actual length of the sentence served, by giving preference to individualised measures, such as early conditional release (parole), over collective measures for the management of prison overcrowding (amnesties, collective, pardons).

24. Parole should be regarded as one of the most effective and constructive measures, which not only reduces the length of imprisonment but also contributes substantially to a planned return of the offender to the community.

25. In order to promote and expand the use of parole, best conditions for offender support, assistance and supervision in the community have to be created, not least with a view to prompting the competent judicial or administrative authorities to consider this measure as a valuable and responsible option.

26. Effective programmes for treatment during detention and for supervision and treatement after release should be devised and implemented so as to facilitate the resettlement of offenders, to reduce recidivism, to provide public safety and protection and to give judges and prosecutors the confidence that measures aimed at reducing the actual length of the sentence to be served and community sanctions and measures are constructive and reponsible options."

Accordingly, the Council for Penological Co-operation, with the approval of the European Committee on Crime Problems followed our recommendation and decided to initiate further research on types of "early release" so as to devise a new recommendation on conditional release. This project, conducted by the Council for Penological Co-operation assisted by three specialists, Norman Bishop, Hilde Tubex and Pierre V. Tournier, along with Anita van de Kar (programme director for the Council of Europe) has produced a particularly helpful comparison of the different models prevailing in Europe. We felt it would be a good idea to share the fruit of these discussions with you, at this 2nd Conference of the European Society of Criminology, and to open our trio to other participants, Mollie Weatheritt of the London Home Office Parole Board and Françoise Lombard of the University of Lille II Institute of Criminology.

The definition of conditional release retained for the time being by the draft recommendation is as follows : " Conditional release means the release of sentenced prisoners to serve the remaining part of their sentence in the community under individualised post-release conditions and supervision".

On this basis, two types of conditional release may be distinguished : the traditional system, which we have called the discretionary release system (système discrétionnaire), and the fixed-term system (système de libération à période fixe).

The fixed-term release system has been applied in Sweden since 1998. Norman Bishop describes it as follows : "prisoners serving a fixed term of imprisonment must be conditionally released after two-thirds of the sentence, but at least one month, has been served in prison. However, conditional release may be postponed by a fixed number of days as a disciplinary punishment. Conditional release is not possible with short-term imprisonment in combination with probation, nor from life sentences. A life sentence can be commuted to a determinate sentence through clemency after which the " two-thirds " rule applies".

The discretionary release system prevails in most of those European countries where conditional release is an option. There are at least three levels at which individualization - or personalization - of the decision applies :

Level 1 - the decision to grant conditional release : a prisoner sentenced to time in prison may very well be discharged without the benefit of conditional release (discharge upon completion of the sentence).

Level 2 - choice of the date of conditional release, following a minimum period spent in detention (defined in absolute terms and/or as a fraction of the prison term).

Level 3 - choice of the conditions to be met by the prisoner following release, during the period under conditional release.

In the fixed-term system of conditional release, individualization is only feasible for the third point. Its advocates emphasize the difficulty in establishing scientific criteria for defining when a prisoner deserves to be granted conditional release. To avoid arbitrary and extremely variable decisions depending on the attitudes of the individuals who make them, it is preferable that everyone be given the same treatment. In this view, attention should be focused on personalizing the control and assistance measures, and on the conditions to be respected by prisoners after leaving prison.

Countries in which the discretionary system is applied often experience a drop in the number of conditional releases granted, for reasons analyzed in the Council of Europe recommendation on prison overcrowding and prison population inflation. There are many reasons :

"- Public opinion : generally very badly informed about the issues involved in the execution of sentences, it views measures for early release as a sign of "being soft on crime".

- The social and economic context : the conditions for being released on parole are often unattainable for population groups that are increasingly marginalised. In addition, there is the difficulty of finding reasonably stable accommodation and especially employment on leaving prison.

- Change in the structure of prison populations according to the types of offence for which prosecutions are bought or sentences pronounced : in many countries, the growing numbers sent to prison for sexual violence or drug-trafficking do not help to increase the rates of early release, since the decision to be taken may have serious consequences if considered in termes of recidivism.

- Competition from non-individualised adjustment measures : some countries make use of amnesties and/or collective pardons, sentence reductions for which the conditions are exclusively linked to behaviour during imprisonment (positive criterion) or the absence of any serious incident during imprisonment (negative criterion) ; granting conditional release then becomes almost systematic and the measure therefore loses any individual character. These procedures designed purely to deal with the shortage of places and maintain discipline, are far removed from the true spirit of parole".

In France, the government has recently attempted to rectify this situation by implementing a wide-ranging reform, not confined to conditional release, culminating in what is known as the June 15, 2002 Act reinforcing the presumption of innocence and the rights of victims. With respect to the mitigation of sentence-serving, this act tends to improve the legal rights of prisoners and to broaden the criteria for granting conditional release (see Françoise Lombard’s communication). It is still too soon to see how effective these new measures will be in practice.

This workshop will also reflect on the case of Belgium, which reformed its system in 1991 but maintained its discretionary nature (see Hilde Tubex’s communication) and of England and Wales (communication by Mollie Weatheritt), in an attempt to evidence both the weaknesses and the strong points of each of the two systems.


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