New Zealand's Parole Board will still apply the "normal legal test" when releasing people from prison, despite not assessing offenders in the flesh for the first time in its history due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
The changes to how the Parole Board will operate during the country's level-4-alert lockdown come after justice reform advocates called for the prison population to be urgently lowered to help stop the spread of Covid-19.
The board's chairman Sir Ron Young said in a statement yesterday decisions are being guided by section 13A of the Parole Act, which governs procedures during an epidemic. The legislation allows for parole consideration on paper, without the offender needing to appear in person.
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Four experienced parole convenors, led by Young, are overseeing all decisions of the board and included Alan Ritchie, Neville Trendle and Kathryn Snook.
Each panel convenor is joined by a community member of the Parole Board, and parole consideration is now made after a teleconference with the prisoner, Young said.
"This is the first time the board has ever operated in this way. The Parole Act requires the board to keep functioning, despite the extraordinary circumstances, and access to justice must be maintained," Young said.
A prisoner's lawyer can also dial into the teleconference and a form is available for offenders to summarise their situation in writing for the board, the statement read.
Registered victims can also provide their submissions via email.
"The board has no legal power to simply release prisoners due to Covid-19," Young said.
"Throughout this time, as always, the board must use its normal legal test to determine parole – that is, whether an offender poses an undue risk to the safety of the community.
"Public safety remains the board's paramount consideration in every case."
The coronavirus crisis has caused significant disruption to New Zealand's courts and justice system, with the Ministry of Justice indicating at least 59,500 events a month in the District and Youth Courts will be postponed during the lockdown.
However, as an essential service, some court hearings will continue.
New Zealand's Chief Justice has said the rule of law must continue to be upheld and cases affecting a person's liberty or safety will still be heard.
While being largely closed to the public, New Zealand's courts will remain open to defendants, prosecutors, lawyers, officers of the court and journalists.
The Ministry of Justice has said it is ordering infrared scanners to test people's temperatures when entering a courthouse. Those who appear to have a fever will be turned away.