Even prisoners who have committed heinous crimes are generally entitled to expect that they will be progressed through the prison system with a view to eventual release. The High Court made that point in finding that an irrational approach was taken to a convicted murderer’s application for transfer to an open prison.
The man was sentenced to life imprisonment after he pleaded guilty to the murder of a young woman. He killed her with a meat cleaver before hiding her dismembered body. He also admitted arson, having set fire to a mosque. He was approaching the end of his 18-year tariff, the minimum term he was required to serve before he would be considered for release on licence.
Following a hearing, the Parole Board recommended that he be transferred to open conditions. He was described as a calm, resolved and compliant prisoner who had worked hard to address his offending behaviour. No fewer than six professional witnesses, including two forensic psychologists, unanimously reported that any risks he posed could be effectively managed in an open setting.
The recommendation was, however, rejected by the Secretary of State for Justice. In finding that he continued to present a high risk to the public, he questioned the man’s honesty and emphasised the brutal and impulsive nature of the murder. He queried whether the man had taken full responsibility for his crimes and whether he would pose a risk of absconding in open conditions.
Overturning that decision, the Court found that the Secretary of State had both misquoted and misunderstood the Board’s conclusions. There was nothing in any of the professionals’ reports to suggest that the man had ever sought to justify his crimes. On the contrary, there was evidence of significant victim empathy. There was no rational foundation for the Secretary of State’s implicit rejection of the Board’s view that there was a low risk of him absconding.
Overall, the Secretary of State’s decision to reject the Board’s recommendation was not rationally open to him. He failed to engage with the Board’s views and gave no good reasons for departing from them. The lack of such reasons was particularly striking given the Board’s depth of analysis, the clarity of its conclusion and the consensus of opinion amongst the panoply of professional witnesses.