LETTER: All we can do is lessen the risks of parole

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The Independent Online
From Professor H. A. Prins Sir: The views expressed in your leading article of 28 December ("Too dangerous to walk free") are understandable but some of your statements may serve to confuse readers rather than elucidate a complex matter.

If it is true that Philip Manning killed his wife during a period of parole (and as yet, this is merely an assertion and not a proven fact), this of course is a tragedy for all concerned.

Long experience in the penal field (as an academic and as a former member of the Parole Board and of the Mental Health Review Tribunal often dealing with offender-patients) teaches me that no amount of supervision and control, however expertly applied, can guarantee the prevention of malign behaviour by someone bent on revenge.

All that can be done is to lessen the possibilities of such behaviour causing harm by inserting specific requirements into the parole, or other form of licence, that may reduce the risk - such as the inclusion of a condition of no contact with the persondeemed to be at risk.

We do not know whether such a condition was inserted in this particular case. In theory, breach of such a condition could at least bring into action the means to revoke the parole or other form of licence.

Your comparison of the parole system with arrangements for the after-care and supervision of mentally ill persons deemed to be at risk of harming themselves or others is well-intentioned but misguided.

For the most part, the two groups of individuals concerned are not comparable and the once-accepted truism that there is an inverse relationship between mental hospital and prison populations has been largely discredited.

The new "supervision registers" introduced by Virginia Bottomley are not intended for the likes of Mr Manning, and, in any event, their ethical basis has been questioned and their worth, as yet, is unproven.

The recent criminal justice legislation to which you refer also makes provision for special arrangements for the release and supervision of particularly dangerous offenders (notably those convicted of sexual and violent offences).

Maybe attention could best be devoted to sentencing practices, for it is well known that someone charged with a serious violent offence may (for a variety of reasons) be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge. This then results in a shorter sentence which may tend to diminish the view of the potential dangerousness of the individual.

As many authorities will tell you, the prediction of dangerousness is a particularly problematic matter; most penal and mental health workers try to do their best in an uncertain and worrying world.

Yours faithfully, H. A. PRINS Midlands Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice Department of Social Sciences Loughborough University Loughborough, Leicestershire

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