Page last updated at 14:13 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Q and A: Bulger killer's release licence

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Jon Venables
Venables was released from custody in 2001 and given a new identity

What are the rules governing the life of Jon Venables, who was convicted of the murder of James Bulger? BBC News explains how the parole system works.

Why was Jon Venables released from prison in 2001?

When Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were convicted in 1993, the only sentence open to the judge was to order them to be detained at "Her Majesty's pleasure", an indefinite sentence used for young offenders guilty of murder. The exact length of sentence was in the hands of the home secretary.

The judge sent a report to the home secretary stating that, had the pair been adults, he would have probably set a minimum term of 18 years. Because they were young boys, he recommended that eight years would constitute "very, very many years" for both of them.

More than a quarter of a million people signed a petition calling for the pair to be locked up for life. The then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, settled on 15 years.

The tariff is the time that someone sentenced to life must serve to satisfy retribution and deterrence before they can seek release on licence. There is no guarantee that someone will leave jail once their tariff has passed.

The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that the boys had the right to have their tariff - broadly, the minimum term - set by a judge rather than a politician.

In late 2000, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, ruled that enormous efforts had been made to rehabilitate the pair, who were now young men, and that passing them on to a young offenders' institution would run the risk of unravelling the good work. He said their tariff had expired.

In 2001 the Parole Board sanctioned their release and the pair were given new identities.

The courts placed a lifetime ban on reporting anything about their whereabouts - a highly unusual order reserved for the most serious cases.

What factors did the Parole Board take into account when it sanctioned their release?

The Parole Board's first duty is to the public - not the prisoner. It asks whether the public will be safe is someone is released.

At the heart of the process is a dossier prepared within the prison that covers the criminal, their crime and previous convictions. It can include psychological or psychiatric reports from the time of the offence and subsequent assessments in prison.

The prisoner can submit their own arguments and there is also a recommendation prepared by officials on behalf of the justice secretary. It takes months for a Parole Board to assess the material because so much is at stake.

Was Jon Venables a free man when he was released?

No. Anyone who is sentenced to a form of life imprisonment is never free. They are given an opportunity to rebuild their life, but they always have hanging over them the strict conditions of their licence.

The licence, set by the Parole Board and managed by probation officers, is at the heart of the measures to protect the public.

In the case of Venables and Thompson, their licence included a ban on returning to Merseyside without written permission in specific circumstances.

They were also banned from contacting each other ever again and were settled, with new identities, in undisclosed locations.

How was Venables monitored?

Anyone on licence must work very closely with the "offender manager", the probation officer who is responsible for monitoring their rehabilitation.

High-profile cases such as Venables and Thompson are more complex. In these kinds of life licence cases where anonymity is crucial to public safety, very few people know the full details of the offender's management to prevent information accidentally leaking.

An official in the National Offender Management Service will have access to the entire case history - but the probation officer on the ground only knows what they need to do their job.

If an offender is a high-profile individual who is protected by an anonymity order, and they are moved to another area, the original probation officer will not be told anything about the offender's future management to maintain that tight circle of confidentiality.

How can someone be recalled to prison?

Recall to prison is triggered by one of three circumstances. They have either committed a crime, behaved in a way that convinces a probation officer that they were about to, or breached specific conditions.

You only have to fail in a very small way for them to decide that your risk has gone up and that you need to go back inside
Former inmate John Hirst

Breaches can be technical, such as missing the exact start of a curfew or being repeatedly late for probation appointments.

But they may also be far more serious, such as ignoring a ban on going to the area where the victim's family live.

John Hirst was convicted of manslaughter but eventually allowed out on a licence.

On one occasion, he was recalled after his probation officer suspected he was drinking and involved in drugs. He denied the charge and the Parole Board sanctioned his release some three months later.

"You only have to fail in a very small way for them to decide that your risk has gone up and that you need to go back inside," he said.

"Every day that you are outside, you are looking over your shoulder. You must learn to get on with your probation officer because your freedom depends on that relationship.

"If that relationship falls apart, they have the power to have you arrested and taken back to prison."

What happens when someone is recalled?

A specialist public protection official at the National Offender Management Service takes the decision to recall a prisoner. The police make the arrest and take the criminal to the nearest local prison.

The prisoner later receives a letter setting out why their licence was revoked. The prisoner then decides whether to mount a challenge.

In some minor cases, the prisoner is released after a month. In more serious cases, the Parole Board receives papers within 28 days and restarts the process.

Parole Board panels typically comprise three people, usually chaired by a judge.

In the case of Venables, it is highly likely that the panel will need to prepare fresh reports and evidence.

James Bulger's family will have the right to have a written statement read out at an oral parole hearing.

If the board decides on an oral hearing, rather than dealing with the case on paper, it is normally held in the prison where the offender is being held.

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