Government

Jailhouse lawyer gets 20th shot at parole

The second half of 2018 saw more eligible offenders being released on parole. Laura Walters looks at Arthur Taylor's 20th bid for parole, and recent moves to improve the system.

Notorious jailhouse lawyer Arthur Taylor has been granted an early parole hearing, as the justice sector and Government work to reduce the prison population.

This will be the 20th time Taylor has been considered for parole.

It comes at a time when those close to the system say the Parole Board’s attitude is changing, and new initiatives are seeing more eligible people released from prison – part of a push by Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis to find inefficiencies in the system.

Taylor, 62, is currently serving more than 17 years for various crimes, relating to explosives, firearms, kidnapping and conspiracy to supply methamphetamine

He is 15 years into his current sentence and has been denied parole 19 times, with the board citing a lack of remorse and manipulative tendencies.

In February last year he went before the board where he argued he was ready for release. But two psychologists said Taylor was at risk of re-offending.

According to media reports, one said he "characteristically demonstrates psychopathic personality traits such as superficial, glib, deceitful, lacking remorse and/or does not accept responsibility".

Taylor has often been a thorn in the Department of Corrections’ side, launching a raft of legal battles against it and other government agencies.

Recently one of his cases set a precedent when the Supreme Court ruled that stopping prisoners from voting – as per current legislation – was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights. The court upheld the declaration of inconsistency first made by the High Court – a New Zealand first.

Taylor's current sentence was due to end in June 2022, and his next parole hearing was originally scheduled for August.

Early hearing

Unless the court imposes a longer minimum non-parole period, all criminals serving sentences of more than two years are eligible for parole after serving one-third of their sentence. Prisoners serving sentences of less than two years are released after serving half of their sentence. They are not seen by the Parole Board but may be subject to release conditions imposed by the court that sentenced them.

Once the parole eligibility date is passed, the board may consider releasing the offender at a time other than when they are due to next be considered for parole. An eligible prisoner can apply to the board for an earlier consideration of parole, according to section 26 of the Parole Act.

In December, new Parole Board chair Ron Young granted Taylor an early hearing under this section of the act, saying Taylor had completed all available rehabilitation programmes available to him in prison, and suitable reintegration programmes were only available in the community. He is expected to come before the board on January 23.

In the 2018 financial year, there were 313 applications by offenders to be considered for parole ahead of their next scheduled hearing. Of those, 130 were successful. (See table at bottom for more statistics.)

Arthur Taylor’s advocate Hazel Heal says he deserves a fair hearing and has more than done his time.

“My feeling is they’ve had him way too long.”

Heal says Taylor has paid his debt to society, adding that his legal talent could be put to use in the community. Her house is being assessed as a possible address for Taylor to be released to – with electronic monitoring – should he be granted parole.

He has also received an offer to work for John Tamihere’s Waipareira Trust.

Tamihere won’t comment on any particular case, but says: “Waipareira has a long-standing commitment to allow all sorts of folk to redeem themselves following incarceration.”

While there’s no indication Taylor will be granted parole, Heal says the fact he has been granted an early hearing is heartening.

Heal, as well as parole lawyers, and those who interact with the system, have said there has been a shift in attitude at the board. Barriers to release – such as postponed hearings and administrative issues – have been improved.

“I do think there’s some sanity returning,” Heal says. “I think there needed to be.”

Heal says Taylor’s parole lawyer, Sue Earl, noted a recent increase in the number of successful cases. Earl could not be reached for comment.

Change in attitude

Mike Williams, head of penal reform group the Howard League, says there has been a noticeable shift under chairman Young, who took over the top job last August.

Better and more efficient administrative practices have led to more people having their hearings on time and being granted parole, when deemed appropriate.

In recent years there have been cases of offenders’ hearings being repeatedly delayed. Williams says one man’s hearing was delayed for more than a year.

“We don’t make a noise, but we just quietly remind the Parole Board that those people have a right to a hearing. And those requests seem to be falling on much more fertile ground, of late.”

Williams and fellow prison reform advocate Roger Brooking have also highlighted cases where the board used hearings to "relitigate" cases, sometimes humiliating offenders. In some cases parole lawyers have also felt intimidated, Williams and Brooking say.

The board’s job is to assess whether people are safe to be released into the community, Williams says, adding that this core purpose is being restored.

Serving for longer, lower re-imprisonment

Corrections data from the 2018 financial year showed long-term prisoners served an average of 79 percent of their sentence, before being granted parole. A decade earlier – in 2008 – that number sat at 75 percent.

Former Parole Board chair Warwick Gendall says the public has been rightly concerned about the high prison population, which reached an all-time high of 10,820 in March last year. The population had since dropped below 10,000.

Gendall says the increasing prevalence of gang membership among the prison population is likely contributing to the slight increase in the proportion of sentences served.

He notes re-imprisonment rates of parolees in their first year of release dropped to 16 percent, from 21 percent a decade ago.

Gendall says the decline of re-imprisonment rates shows the board is doing its job in assessing who is safe for release.

Parole ready

In 2018, Corrections established the Parole Ready Project, part of the cross-agency High Impact Innovation Programme (HIIP). It’s designed to lower prisoner numbers through quicker access to justice.

HIIP has been part of Davis’ drive, in recent months, to fix inefficiencies in the system without law changes. That’ll help ease pressure on the prison population. On Wednesday, the prison population was at 9916 – a drop of more than 8 percent since last March.

(The total prison population comprises 696 females and 9220 males. Of these, 3159 are on remand. These numbers are often slightly higher than normal due to court closures over the holiday period.)

The parole achievement rate for the last six months of last year was 28.4 percent of hearings held. That’s an increase of 5.9 percent over the same period a year earlier.

HIIP director Leigh Marsh says Corrections is working to reach the Government’s target to reduce the prison population by 30 percent over 15 years, and improve the well-being of people in the system.

"In recent years the proportion of a prison sentence served by a prisoner has increased (with prisoners serving, on average, 80 percent of their sentence before release), reducing the opportunity for a prisoner to be monitored on parole in the community in a way that supports their reintegration," Marsh says.

"The aim of Parole Ready is to support prisoners into rehabilitation and reintegrative programmes so they are better-prepared for a safe and managed release from prison, which may assist them to be granted parole."

Williams, of the Howard League, says the programme has helped to improve the system, allowing people to reintegrate more quickly. Supporting offenders – about 75 percent are functionally illiterate – with administration is also a practical improvement, which gets better outcomes for those ready to be released.

  2018 2017 2016
All hearings 8321 7739 8074
Total offenders seen 5164 4711 4896
Total parole hearings 6067 5503 5905
Cases approved 1424 1245 1378
Early hearing applications 313 321 395
Early hearings approved 130 152 179

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