Cash and fresh blood: Queensland's new Parole Board

NEW APPROACH: Queensland Parole Board recruits gather in Brisbane for training ahead of starting with seven sittings in their first week.
NEW APPROACH: Queensland Parole Board recruits gather in Brisbane for training ahead of starting with seven sittings in their first week. The Courier Mail

QUEENSLAND'S new Parole Board recently started work, flush with cash and fresh blood.

Its aim? To make a dent in prison overcrowding and repeat offending while increasing transparency about parole decisions.

It is the biggest shake-up of the system for 80 years and comes with a $32million price tag.

Michael Byrne, QC has taken the high-stakes job of heading up the new board, which includes Mackay lawyer Nicole Cullen.

Byrne is the former deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Commissioner for the Queensland Organised Crime Inquiry and criminal barrister familiar with big cases such as defending Jayant Patel and Gerard Baden-Clay.

The new regime of deciding if prisoners are fit for release kicks off as bail laws are being debated amid community concerns about alleged violent offenders avoiding being remanded into custody.

There are calls for changes to how bail is considered and a tightening of the rules to make it harder for those accused of violent offences to be released at first instance.

But dealing with the other end of the corrections system is the parole board.

And Queensland has a major parole problem. A blowtorch review late last year by Walter Sofronoff, QC - now Court of Appeal President - followed the stabbing murder of an 81-year-old Townsville woman, allegedly by a man released on parole just seven hours earlier.

Sofronoff laid bare an "antiquated and emaciated system" run by "devoted amateurs" dealing with mountains of useless paperwork across three different boards at disorganised sittings.

Meanwhile, Queensland prisons are overflowing with 8000 inmates, up to a fifth of whom are there because of parole suspensions.

For example, the current overcrowding at Woodford Correctional Centre would be solved instantly by removing prisoners on parole suspensions.

According to Sofronoff, the cost of keeping a prisoner in custody is more than 10 times greater than the cost of managing them in the community and if that can be done safely, everyone wins. He made 91 recommendations. The government supported all but two.

At the top of the list was dragging the system out of the 1930s, with $32million over six years expected to be spent on paying for the new full-time parole board.

Three boards have been abolished and there is now just one, headed by Byrne and two deputies - lawyers Peter Shields and Julie Sharp.

Helping to make decisions about who should be released are 33 permanent community and professional members, including two serving police officers as well as specialists in child safety, domestic violence, disability and prison mental health, leading psychologists, academics, a chairman of a nationally recognised charity, solicitors and social workers.

Seven members identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, and regional representation covers Townsville, Cairns, Atherton Tablelands, Mackay and Hervey Bay.

Members of the board, in various formations depending on the seriousness of the case, will sit every day, with none able to consider parole for prisoners they had as clients.

Parole applications by serious violent or sexual offenders must now be decided by five board members made up of the president or deputy president, a police officer, a professional member, a public service officer and a community member.

As president, Byrne's role is equivalent to a Supreme Court judge and his deputies have District Court judge status.

What they are faced with is the dual "tragedy", according to Byrne, of a huge number of people in prison due to previous parole failures, while others are released when they shouldn't be or without adequate supervision.

Despite having his pick of the biggest cases going, Byrne says accepting a five-year tenure as president was something he could not pass up.

"It was irresistible because, if you read the Sofronoff report, what we can do hopefully for the community and the people in jail is significant," he says.

Tied to the finding are new targets such as speedier decisions - the board will have 120 days to decide parole instead of up to seven months.

Parole management should start as soon as prisoners enter the system instead of it being left until just before they are released.

For the first time, astonishingly, the Parole Board will have dedicated legal and administrative staff to deal with the constant flow of applications.

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