A Day in the Life of a Parole Board of Canada Board member
of those in which I travel to the federal institutions in our area to conduct hearings with offenders. Our office is in Moncton, NB, and our five federal penitentiaries are within driving distance. As we are going to Springhill Medium Security Institution today, we will leave the office at . and arrive at about .
I am normally up at . or so in order to comfortably prepare for departure.
We will be seeing six offenders today, five of whom are being seen for full parole and one who has applied for a day parole. These offenders will not be complete strangers to me when I meet them face-to-face. I spent all day yesterday in the office reading their parole files from cover to cover. Our timetables are arranged to allow for one full day to review files for each day of scheduled hearings.
Reviewing an offender's file is always demanding, especially if there are three or four volumes of information on an offender, which can happen if that person has a lengthy record. In reviewing the files, I look for patterns and I check very closely to see if there is information missing which I will need before making a decision on a case. For example, it is vitally important to know: why an offender is serving time (convicted for what specific crimes); what motivated him/her to commit the offences; whether there has been a history of similar offences; what impact the crimes have had on any victims; whether violence was involved in the commission of the offence(s); whether the offence was sexually motivated; whether the offender has taken any steps to address his criminal behavior; and if his/her risk has been reduced to a point where it can be effectively and safely managed in the community.
Our files contain detailed information on each offender prepared by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). CSC is responsible for obtaining police reports on the crimes committed, criminal histories of previous crimes, and comments, or reasons for sentencing, from the presiding judge. CSC also provides community assessments, which assess reactions from many sources in the offender's home community - such as victims, family, friends and police. CSC also assesses each offender on admission to prison and produces an Offender Intake Assessment report which looks closely at the offender's criminogenic needs, such as alcohol or drug abuse, academic deficiencies (many of our offenders are illiterate), serious psychological or psychiatric problems, or problems with handling anger or emotional outbursts. Subsequently, Correctional Treatment Plans are formulated with the offender to point out what the individual must do to address his criminal behavior, turn his life around and return to the community as a law-abiding member of society. Programming is then made available for those who require it, for example: educational upgrading; substance abuse treatment; sex offender treatment; anger management and cognitive or thinking skills - in other words, programs designed to help an individual realize the consequences of certain behavior (for themselves and others) before actually committing an act. Then reports are prepared outlining the offender's participation and progress in those programs.
The offender's institutional progress is also reported along with psychiatric and psychological reports (where required) which provide critical information about an offender's behavior and whether it is felt the person requires further professional help to deal with his/her problems. Professional opinions and assessments form a part of these reports and are good indicators of whether an individual is seen as a serious risk to re-offend.
Files can be extensive and the information contained in them is critical to helping paint a picture of each individual you are dealing with. Reviewing the files also allows you to formulate a plan for questioning the offender when you see him at the hearing. It allows you to focus on what you really feel you need to know, questions in your mind, which may still be unanswered.
Today, I am driving to Springhill Institution with one of my fellow Board members and a Hearing Assistant. It is a requirement that the majority of offenders in federal institutions require two Parole Board members to review their cases and vote on conditional release.
We are legally required to share the reasons for our decisions with the offender and must eventually provide them with a full written copy of the decision. In addition to this, should interested parties such as victims or representatives of the media request a copy of our decisions, we also provide them with a copy. It is very important to be clear and direct when rendering a decision because your name as the decision maker is on the bottom line for the world, including your colleagues, neighbors, friends and family members to see.
Today, we have a full slate of hearings. We will see six offenders and spend approximately one hour with each one. They will be accompanied by an institutional Case Management Officer (CMO), a CSC employee who has been primarily responsible for preparing the offender's case for the hearing. The CMO offers an opinion on the offender's readiness for conditional release and makes a clear-cut recommendation for or against parole.
Our approach at each hearing is to review the highlights of the offender's criminal life to date and to question the offender about his history and his plans for the future. It is critical to be able to determine if: change has occurred with the offender; the change is sufficient to indicate that he is ready to serve the rest of his sentence in the community under the supervision of a parole officer; he no longer presents an undue risk to re-offend when he is back in the community.
When the majority of the hearing is over and the facts are before us, we request the offender and everyone else leave the room and we, two Board Members, deliberate and make our final decision on whether to grant or deny release.
It is quite a responsibility and quite sobering to realize you are dealing with another human being's freedom. It is equally sobering to be aware that you may have to live with the consequences of releasing someone who may re-offend. Weighing everything is not easy, and there are no absolute guarantees nor safeguards when it comes to human behavior, but it's my job to make such decisions and I know that I must make many of them on a daily basis. And I do that always with public protection as the paramount concern.
The decisions we make and the reasons for them are immediately conveyed verbally to the offender who is asked to return to the hearing room along with whomever else may have been present.
We decided to grant full parole to two of the six offenders we saw today and day parole to another. Three offenders were denied release and advised that we did not feel they were ready to go back to society yet.
The first offender we paroled was a 32-year-old serving 4 years for a series of break and enters, which he perpetrated to get money to support his drug habit. Since coming to Springhill Institution, he upgraded his education, getting his General Education Degree (GED), he followed an intensive substance abuse program and he had a job lined up for the future in his home community, where he plans to live with his common-law wife and two children who strongly support his return home. He will be required to abstain from the use of drugs and alcohol throughout his period of supervision.
Another offender granted full parole was a 25-year-old who is serving 3-½ years for selling drugs to an undercover RCMP officer. He had no previous criminal record and his crime was motivated by a way to make some quick money to live a lifestyle that he could not support from the income from his job as a laborer. The police in his home community were not opposed to his returning there provided he was closely supervised and aware of the fact that they would be keeping a close eye on him. He also had the support of his former employer who kept a job available for him, and a place to stay with his parents who have always been there for him.
We denied parole to one twenty-year-old offender who is only serving 2 years but who committed serious assault on two victims. This offender had a history of assaultive behavior as a juvenile, and he had not demonstrated to us that he was willing to accept responsibility for his behavior or to take the steps required to help him with his anger problems. Our second denial involved a 27-year-old repeat offender who was serving time for a series of property-related offences, but who had failed on a previous parole release. He had done nothing to deal with his substance abuse problems and he had no support available in the community.
Another offender we decided not to release was serving time for drug-related crimes and spousal abuse. He had also been charged and convicted of Assault Causing Bodily Harm. This was his second term in a federal penitentiary and although he had taken some programs to deal with his problems, we felt that a further period of incarceration and program involvement would be necessary before we would grant a conditional release in his case.
As we wrap up at the institution, I note that it is . and we have a drive of left before we're home. While reflecting on the day, I can say that I think I've been fair in my risk assessment of the offenders I have seen, and to the communities where they will return.
Even so, you always worry about those you release and when you hear a news report about a crime having been committed in some community, you hope and pray that nobody was hurt during the commission of the offence and that it wasn't committed by someone you released. But I know that is part of the job - even with the best risk assessment tools, nothing is guaranteed.
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