Detailed decisions can change lives

Queensland Parole Board Deputy President Peter Shields has one of the toughest jobs in the profession. Photo and video: Geoff McLeod

Queensland Parole Board Deputy President Peter Shields spends a lot of his work week reading. And the reading is rarely pleasant but it is important.

He along with the other parole board members have life-changing decisions to make based on the detailed files in front of them.

They have to weigh up the safety of the community, the rights of victims and the possibility of prisoner rehabilitation. They have to get the balance right, and when they don’t, there are serious, and sometimes high-profile, consequences.

But Peter says he and the board members take learnings from every case.

He kindly put down the files and spoke to Proctor for the 2024 Day in the Life of series about the challenges, misconceptions and best parts of his work.

Could you give me a brief summary of a typical day on the job?

My job is a lot of reading, so I chair a parole board hearing every Thursday and every Friday, and normally about 30 to 34 matters on a Thursday and Friday; it’s quite inconsistent because it’s just a new process. So leading up to those meetings, it’s a lot of reading and and we read everything. And that’s the most important part of it. So by way of background, the board has nine teams and each team has their own file load. And we have different types of teams depending on the type of matters. For instance, the very serious matters are dealt with by a senior board member, so that would be the President or Deputy President’s chairing. And then the other teams are chaired by professional board members who are all quite senior, experienced lawyers.


To give the work of the board some context, in the last financial year the board considered 6964 applications for a parole order, 5806 applications to suspend someone’s parole order and 908 amendments. So we have teams working every day and sitting every day. And I see you shake your head because that’s a lot of reading. And it’s also important to put again into context, the board’s work is not really known outside those who practise criminal law.

And this is one of those very important tasks that’s undertaken and no one really knows about it, reads about it, hears about it unless something goes wrong and then it’s white hot focus for some period of time. So it’s important that people understand the amount of material and the amount of decision making that we make. And the decisions are made by an independent parole board … And and we do take into account always the wishes of the victim. They can make submissions to us. We will always read them and take that into account. Sometimes it’s a balancing exercise and our number one concern is risk to the community.

What are some common misconceptions about your job?

I think it’s important that the public get to understand … there is no right or entitlement to release on parole at the expiration of a minimum term determined at sentencing. It always remains a possibility that a prisoner may be required to serve the whole head sentence imposed – the expiration of a minimum term has been set merely to provide an opportunity for the prisoner to be released. … We don’t rubber stamp. You’re not definitely going to get parole. There are some prisoners who will never get parole because they suffer from psychopathy or sexual sadism, which is a lifelong construct. In other words, they’re never going to get better….

The only purpose of parole is to reintegrate a prisoner into the community before the end of the prison sentence, to decrease the chance that the prisoner will ever re-offend. The only rationale for parole is to keep the community safe from crime. If it were safer in terms of likely re-offending, the prisoner is to serve the whole sentence in prison, then there would be no parole. … It must be remembered also that parole is just a matter of timing, except for those who are sentenced to life imprisonment. Every prisoner will have to be released eventually, and that’s the truth of it.

What regular challenges are you faced with in the work day?


And one of the challenges for the board members is trying to draw attention to the needs of prisoners in a calm way without taking away the needs for the victims because a lot of the prisoners, when you read their files and you read their life stories, there’s no surprise that they’re living a life of crime.

If you had an extra hour in the work day, what would you do with it?

Go for a walk with my wife. Now, the downside to this work is that unlike the courts, every file that we have, every applicant is the worst of the worst. Because for the vast majority of offences, a term of imprisonment is still a last resort. So if we’re reading an application, they’re in prison, they’ve been sent to prison. Not everyone who gets sentenced before the Supreme Court, District Court, or even the Magistrates Court goes to prison. So we’re dealing with those who are in prison, and it’s quite traumatic material and it doesn’t stop.

I’m going for a walk along the river, a walk with my wife, and not talking about anything to do with crime, not talking about crime shows on TV, not talking about anything like that, but just getting back into nature.

What’s the best part of your work day?

The best part of the job is when a prisoner gets it. … And so what will happen quite regularly is if we’re considering not granting a parole order to that applicant, we will send them a letter outlining the reasons why, and it’ll be very detailed. It’ll go through the factors favourable for their application and then go into their offending, their criminal history, and then highlight in particular why it is that the board is considering not granting a parole order, and it will be their poor behaviour…


And a lot of the times their behaviour just stops; that is, the bad behaviour stops. They get a job in the jail. They put themselves down for courses. Then they write to us to explain … That’s as good as it gets. That is, a young person who’s reflective, who is remorseful and is taking steps to change their behaviour.

Now, it might seem it might seem like a small thing for people in the community to go, “well, of course he should behave himself”. But when you put into context that that young person has never had a good role model in their life, has never known someone who’s held employment, has never done anything except misbehave, that period where they’ve proven that they can behave themself means a lot because it does show they can actually control their actions. And also at some level must be rewarding for that prisoner to know that they’ve changed the trajectory of their life even for that short period of time. So that’s a feel good story for us in the context of the work that we do.

If you could go back and give some advice to yourself on your first day as a lawyer, what would it be?

Prior to my appointment, I was the chair of the current Queensland Law Society Criminal Section committee. My advice to young lawyers is to get involved in the Queensland Law Society.

It’s incredibly rewarding to give your time to a good organisation. It’s professionally rewarding. A lot of members of the society, I don’t think, have any real understanding of how broad the society’s reach is with the different committees.

So if you have an interest in a particular area of the law, then my advice would be to express interest in perhaps joining that committee, or at the very least, if you don’t have the experience to be a worthwhile contributor to that committee, just being involved in the society, going to the dinners, getting some friends together and going to the dinners, and just being part of something I think that does a lot of good work, is very rewarding for young lawyers.

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