Page last updated at 02:44 GMT, Thursday, 1 April 2010 03:44 UK

Sir David Latham says public 'risk-averse' on parole

Fewer life sentence prisoners successfully apply for release

Large numbers of people remain in jail because society is too "risk-averse" to allow them to be released on licence, England and Wales' parole chief says.

Sir David Latham told the Guardian that public reaction to cases like that of James Bulger killer Jon Venables would make authorities even more cautious.

The Parole Board chairman said the drop in the proportion of life-term inmates who were freed was an "over-reaction".

Society had to decide what level of risk it was ready to accept, he said.

His comments come as the Parole Board is due to receive Venables' case files.

Society needs to realise that we can't create a world which is free of risk
Sir David Latham

Venables, who along with Robert Thompson murdered James Bulger on Merseyside in 1993, is being investigated by police over allegations that he committed serious offences nine years after being freed on licence.

He has since been recalled to prison.

'Bad laws risk'

Sir David, a former appeal court judge, said criticism in 2006 by the then-Home Secretary John Reid about prisoner parole policy had had a significant effect on release rates.

Sir David said if Parole Board members felt they would be "pilloried" for making a mistake that was "bound" to have an effect on them.

I always presumed the Judge decided what the risk to society was and the sentence reflected this

He said the public was "perhaps unrealistic about the level of risk it should be prepared to accept".

"I'm concerned that the society we're presently living in is becoming too risk-averse," he said.

"Society needs to realise that we can't create a world which is free of risk. What society has to determine is what level of risk it is prepared to accept."

The alternative, he warned, was that prisoners would continue to be held in jail beyond their minimum term without justification.

He added that there was a risk that a case like that of Venables could result in "bad laws" being created.

Over the past five years, the proportion of life sentence prisoners who have successfully applied for release has dropped from about 35% to 15%.

Sir David said this was an "over-reaction" when re-offending rates had remained stable at between 1% and 2%.

He raised the prospect that his interview would be "distorted" by the press but said an open debate on the issue was needed.

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