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This article apeared in the Belfast Telegraph Thursday 1 October 1998.

How is a decision made about the release of paramilitary prisoners and what guidelines are followed? Here the joint chairmen of the Sentence Review Commissioners, SIR JOHN BLELLOCH and BRIAN CURRIN, explain their work.

The early release of prisoners was never going to be a popular part of the Agreement. However the politicians judged the measure necessary and the Sentence Review Commissioners were appointed to do the job.

The gates of the prisons are not simply being flung open, as some would have you believe. It is a very cautious process, with safeguards and options.

We know the releases can cause worry, even pain, among victims and others and we try to do the task entrusted to us as carefully and as caringly as we can.

The powers of the Commissioners to decide whether or not a prisoner in Northern Ireland is released early come from the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.

The Act sets out three conditions that all applicants for early release must satisfy. These are:

  • that the sentence was passed for a scheduled offence and is one of imprisonment for life or for at least five years;
  • that the prisoner is not a supporter of a 'specified' organisation;
  • and that if the prisoner were released immediately, he would not be likely to become a supporter of a 'specified' organisation or involved in acts of terrorism connected with Northern Ireland.

A fourth condition, applying only to life sentence prisoners, is that if released immediately he would not be a danger to the public.

The Commissioners interpret 'danger' as meaning death or serious personal injury, whether physical or psychological, resulting from further offences committed by him.

Scheduled offences are defined in successive Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Acts and comprise those most likely to be committed by terrorists.

They range from murder and manslaughter through kidnapping, serious assaults, and armed robbery to a wide range of firearms and explosives offences. They are tried before non-jury (Diplock) courts.

A 'specified' organisation is one specified by the Secretary of State in legislation as not being committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

Four organisations are currently specified - the Continuity IRA, LVF, INLA and 'Real' IRA. The Secretary of State may at any time either add to or take from this list.

Of the four conditions, the first is purely factual - the nature of the offence and the length of the sentence - while the others are matters of judgement.

In deciding on the second condition, the Commissioners will accept an applicant's declaration that he is not a supporter of a specified organisation unless the Prison Services response gives them contrary evidence.

So it is the third and fourth conditions that require the most important and difficult judgements.

While the Commissioners have to exercise judgement, they do not sit as a court. They do not decide in favour of one party and against the other.

Instead, they decide on the basis of representations from both parties: information contained in the application by the prisoner and the response from the Prison Service amplified, if either party so opts, in an oral hearing.

Just as the application is the Commissioners main source of information about the first two conditions, it is upon the response papers that they primarily rely for the third and fourth. The RUC liaise with the Prison Service, which ensures that any police information relevant to the conditions is included in the response papers.

Similarly, the Prison Service has to make available to the Commissioners relevant psychological and psychiatric evidence that may help them decide whether or not an applicant may be a danger to the public.

Nevertheless, it is open to the Commissioners considering a particular case to conclude that they need to ask for more information. This they may do from the applicant, the Prison Service or an outside source, depending on whether it relates to risk of re-offending or is a medical question bearing on possible danger to the public.

The fact remains that human behaviour is not precisely predictable and that, despite all the safeguards within the system, a successful applicant may re-offend.

Public concern about this possibility is entirely understandable, and there is nothing the Commissioners can say that can lay that concern entirely to rest. There are, nevertheless, elements of re-assurance.

First, the procedures under the Act are well-considered ones that the Commissioners are operating in a conscientious way.

Second, it is a scheme for early release, not for amnesty. Life sentence prisoners will be released under indefinite licence. Determinate sentence prisoners will be under licence for the part of their sentence that has attracted extra remission. This can be a substantial period - up to a third of the sentence.

Third, terrorist re-offending by released long-term prisoners has been very rare. For example, roughly 80% of all the life sentence prisoners due to be released by mid-2000 have already been released, the majority prior to the Agreement.

Fewer than 1% have been convicted of further serious terrorist offences. This, moreover, took place in a political environment very different from that following the Agreement.

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