Hong Kong's prison system designed to deter blatant corruption

Parole boards do a good job, but long-term supervision of ex-convicts should be explored

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 3:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 3:51am

Recent articles in this paper (February 17) have been critical of corruption in the mainland parole system.

What about the system in Hong Kong? What is it like and are there risks here that wealthy prisoners might be able to bribe their way to an early release? Given the design of the city's parole system, I see little, if any, risk of such blatant corruption occurring here.

I have had the privilege of serving on one of our "parole boards" for the past six years. I put the words in quotation marks because our board, which is known as the Post-Release Supervision Board (PRSB), does not grant "parole" in the usual sense of discretionary release.

Two other boards are more traditional in this way. They are the Long-term Prison Sentences Review Board, concerned with recommending the early release of prisoners serving sentences of more than 10 years including life imprisonment; and the Release Under Supervision Board, concerned with recommending release as early as midway into the sentence of imprisonment and for employment purposes.

To ensure the integrity of these boards, they are independent of government, chaired by retired judges and have other members with professional expertise, including law, medicine, social work and offender rehabilitation. All members on the boards serve on a voluntary basis.

Unlike the other two boards, the PRSB is concerned only with the imposition of conditions of release in a supervision order and the consequences of breaching such an order (known as recall and suspension). By virtue of Rule 69 of the Prison Rules, which gives effect to the principle of remission for good conduct, prisoners need only serve two-thirds of their sentence of imprisonment, unless remission has been forfeited for misconduct.

The two-thirds rule ensures that prisoners are treated equally and given a clear date of release. Before the PRSB was established in 1996, prisoners were simply released into the community without supervision after serving two-thirds of the sentence.

Most serious offenders - for example, those convicted of robbery, drug trafficking, wounding, extortion, sexual offences or manslaughter - now have to be considered by the PRSB before release and, invariably, a supervision order is imposed. Supervision orders cannot last beyond the term of the sentence.

We sometimes come across high-risk child sex offenders and are powerless to order supervision beyond the term of the sentence. The power to order long-term supervision of such offenders for 10 years or more exists in other countries and is worth exploring further in Hong Kong.

The PRSB's experience has shown that supervision generally works in preventing recidivism during the supervision period. Of the more than 7,000 prisoners discharged under supervision since 1996, only about 10 per cent were reconvicted of a criminal offence in their supervision period. But after the supervision order expired, more than 31 per cent of prisoners were reconvicted within the first 24 months.

At the beginning of March, there were 434 prisoners undergoing supervision. Of those, 316 had taken up employment and 54 were living on social assistance. Parole in many places is the subject of much public controversy. In Hong Kong, the system has operated efficiently and fairly while crime rates have remained stable and relatively low.

Professor Simon Young Ngai-man is a practicing barrister who teaches criminal law and evidence in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong