We are a year on from the public outcry surrounding the Parole Board's decision to release serial rapist John Worboys, and as a result there are now plans in place to review elements of the Parole Board System. The so-called black-cab rapist Worboys carried out more than 100 rapes and sexual assaults on women in London between 2002 and 2008 and was last year deemed to no longer be a threat to the public. Due to the determination of his victims and the collective national uproar, the decision was overturned by the High Court in March 2018, and in November they ruled that Worboys must stay in prison indefinitely.
To challege such parole decisions, it has now been proposed that rather than face an intimidating and often prohibitively expensive court case, victims are now able to contest decisions through an application to the Ministry of Justice.
This is certainly a step in the right direction, and while we welcome this, it cannot overshadow the fact that this is still an ineffectual system that requires a complete review.
Change in policy is one thing, but the translation of this into functional implementation is quite another. We echo the concerns of Harriet Wistrich, the solicitor for two of Mr.Worboy’s victims, who expressed doubt that the reform may just be ‘window dressing’. Without the inclusion of legal advice or guidance to complete such applications, it is unlikely that victims will be able to effectively challenge or influence the decision-making process.
It is vital that we look right at the source of how the judicial system treats cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Why are conviction rates and sentencing for these crimes so low, and crucially, why are victims not consulted or considered in the event of an impending release?
More often than not, victims are not contacted to be told that the perpetrator of their crime has been released. A service user we work with was horrified to learn of her ex-partner’s early release from prison through an acquaintance on the street. He had been convicted of the rape and sexual assault of her daughter and only served two years of a three year sentence.
“I was actually terrified and so scared when one of my friends told me that she saw him. It made me feel so unsafe, it was devastating. They should have notified me and my daughter. Knowing that he knows where we live, I feel not updating us was so unprofessional. In a way it let me and my kids down especially knowing the risks. Notifying victims is very important for their safety. It would have been very helpful to have been notified of his release date as I am still living in the same property with my children. I feel very angry that he knows my address but they (Probation) are not allowed to let us know where he lives.”
The Solace IRIS Advocate who handled her case stated:
"Unfortunately this is nothing new. We are often not updated when an offender has been released or is out on bail. When we call for an update the police are under resourced and cannot answer. We need to know the timeframe when an offender is released so that we can contact relevant agencies to put critical safeguarding measures in place. For example, if the perpetrator knows the victim’s address they may need to upgrade their security systems, such as installing alarms or ensuring their letterbox is fireproof. The information on the area an offender is residing in should be made available to the victim so that they can ensure they create distance where available. Further to this, if the victim is unaware of release, this can trigger emotional distress and trauma that will require considerable counselling and support."
It is also notable that the new system only applies to indeterminate sentence prisoners (ISPs) like those serving life sentences or jailed under imprisonment for public protection. We do not think this is far-reaching enough to give all victims agency over proceedings that directly affect them. Any crime that creates a victim is important enough to include their voice and consider their wellbeing.
The fact that we are having this public discourse is a real step forward for the rights of victims, but we must ensure that any reform taken is done so in consultation with the services who support those affected by abuse and violence, and the victims themselves.