Long-serving judge Sir Ron Young has turned his back on ‘retirement’ for what he describes as the “really worthwhile” job of chairing the New Zealand Parole Board.
The former Chief District Court Judge spent three decades in the judiciary. He was appointed President of the Electoral Commission in 2000, joined the High Court bench in 2001 and retired in 2015. The following year, he was knighted for services to the judiciary.
“I felt I’d run my race in terms of being a judge – that was enough for me. When I retired, I decided I would only do things that I really felt were worth doing [and] that meant something to me,” says Sir Ron.
Then the Board opportunity arose, and was too good to pass up.
“I really want to do this role. It is something different to what I had done, and it is an area where I can learn and develop and contribute something,” he says.
“So I thought ‘I can come out of retirement for that’.”
The past few years have been retirement in name only for Sir Ron, who has been conducting judicial training in the Pacific, and sitting as a judge of both the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu Courts of Appeal. The Pacific link is set to carry over into his new role, with the Vanuatu Parole Board coming to Wellington later this year for information-sharing and professional development.
Sir Ron arrived at the New Zealand Parole Board in mid-August, taking over from Warwick Gendall QC, who spent six years as chairperson of the Board. Its core function is to conduct risk-assessments on eligible prisoners to decide if they can be safely released, subject to conditions. The Board sits in every prison in the country once a month, either in person or by video conference.
“The amount of work done by each Board per day is extraordinary,” says Sir Ron.
“Board members get a remarkable amount of information to inform their decision-making. Everything on the background of the person, the sentencing notes, information about what’s happened in prison itself. What rehabilitation and reintegration programmes they’ve done. It’s a huge amount of information to process in each case.”
But the workload is wider than just parole consideration. Monitoring hearings are held, recall applications and compassionate releases are considered, and Extended Supervision Order conditions are imposed. A total of 7,739 hearings were held in in the last reporting year.
Sir Ron says it’s an “unbelievable number” of hearings.
“There can be 10 to 13 hearings a day, so it’s remarkable to me how Board members seem well able to control this material, process it, assess risk, and turn it into a decision.
“You couldn’t do it any other way, though.”
Sir Ron has thrown himself into his new role. He attended the government’s justice summit in Porirua within a week of starting, and has been observing Board hearings to get a feel for the work that lies ahead.
“I’m trying to get around every Board. I’ll be chairing a lot myself, starting in late September. I’m trying to see psychologists and others who have valuable information about rehabilitation programmes. Dozens of people are involved in these programmes and unless you can understand and get a feel for what they’re doing, you can’t really have confidence in recommending them,” he says.
Parole and re-offending
Sir Ron sees parole as “the primary factor that controls re-offending”.
“Obviously, all New Zealanders are worried about how many people we have in prison. Parole and risk assessment, the development of programmes to reduce that risk, the need to keep the public safe – all of these things seem to me to be really important.
“The Board’s decisions are not simple, but they are vital to a credible justice system. I am under no illusion as to the complexity of the work that lies ahead, but I am also hopeful that this will be some of the most meaningful work of my career,” says Sir Ron.
Tim Graham is Communications Manager with the New Zealand Parole Board.