Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mad, Bad Probation

The Chief Inspector of Probation has tried to open a debate around risk. Such is the complicated philosophical and statistical nature of this can of worms that the media got the wrong end of the stick. Again.

The Inspector’s point is a fair one. Is it viable - economically, let alone morally - to keep hordes of people in prison on the basis that a small minority of them will go on to re-offend? He estimates that if these all these thousands of prisoners were released, there would be some 40 new serious offences committed.

The media promptly leapt on the old 'early release scheme’, where very short term offenders were released 17 days early in order to reduce overcrowding. As this scheme ended months ago, this media response is a decidedly dodo-ish one.

What the Inspector was referring to were the thousands serving Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection as we call them, IPP's. There are thousands of them, sentenced for a motley collection of crimes, many not usually meriting more than a couple of years in prison prior to the invention of the IPP sentence.
They flooded into, and chocked, the prison system. Less than 100 have ever been released. Most are now past their tariff, i.e. served the punishment phase of their sentence. And their presence has had a profound impact upon the prospects of all other 'regular' lifers.

In order to progress towards release, we must undertake psychological courses intended to end our wicked ways. But no-one funded the provision of these courses to take into account the IPP's. The result is a huge logjam, with lifers and IPP's being unable to progress solely due to the inability to access these courses.
So bizarre is this situation that a legal challenge a couple of years ago found that, through no fault of their own, these people were now being held in prison irrationally and so illegally. This was swiftly reversed on appeal! But to get such a High Court judgement at all signifies how difficult the situation has become.

These IPP's a-re now deep into the territory that caused the Inspector to wince - being detained only because they cannot demonstrate that they do not pose a risk of future offending. As the Inspector says, 40 of them do pose a risk and will reoffend in a damaging way. But which 40?

Unable to filter the sheep from the wolves, all remain in prison. The Inspector estimates that the cost of this, versus the 40 potential crimes if they were released, is equivalent to £2,000,000 per offence, per year. And he asked the question, is this a sensible use of money we don't have? Would it not be better to accept that some crime is inevitable, let them all go and trouser the savings?

The 'usual suspects' amongst victims’ campaigners, notably Mothers Against Murder, were livid. It seems that criminal justice should never have anything to do with money or budgets. Hmmm, that's an interesting idea but not one society has ever proposed previously. There aren't an infinite number of police, prisons or probation. The idea that money has nothing to do with criminal justice is just silly and to claim so is yet another reason why some victim's groups are beyond my pale.

I have a particular dislike for Mothers Against Murder and Aggression. Set up by Lynn Costello after the Bulger murder, they insist on Life meaning Life, always. Just their name gives me the willies, implying they are in opposition to all the mothers who are in favour of murder and aggression. Humph.

The Inspector raises important questions, ones that we are not used to having thrown in our faces. That we have avoided them for so long makes them no less important.

The resources available to deal with crime are limited. That's just a fact we have to live with. The honest question, then, is what are we prepared to spend compared with how much crime are we willing to accept? This has been a secretly weighed balance in the past, an area no-one wants to elucidate explicitly because it is extremely difficult to answer.

We could probably cut crime if every person was escorted by a copper, 24 hours a day. Can we afford this? Do we want this? No, and no. So we accept some crime in the name of money and freedom. Having accepted that principle, the only issue left to be resolved is where to draw the line, how much money we should spend to cut crime?

The Inspector also raises what I think is the most important ethical question currently affecting imprisonment. Having captured the criminal, should we then just confine him until he is 'safe'? Or should he be sent to prison solely to serve the time punishment meted out for the crime he has committed? Detaining people for what they may possibly do in future is a very dangerous idea.

The Inspector suggests that, if the IPP's were all released tomorrow, society would bear the cost of 40 extra crimes. In an effort to prevent these (or defer them; all IPP's will be released at some point), we spend £80 million a year. That's £2 million per crime prevented (or deferred).

Ethics aside, it is not unreasonable to raise the question if that level of expense is socially unacceptable.


  1. I don't know if others have noticed but a member of the Parole Board has written an article for Guardian attacking this. In the article he dispays remarkable ignorance (even for a member of the Parole Board. I have made a number of comments on the Guardian website about the article including one highlighting Ben's case and blog.


  2. I really don't know how I feel about this one, it's such a tough question. I agree with you that victims of violent crime and their relatives aren't the best people to influence politicians because their understandable pain can make them incapable of distancing themselves to look at the situation in a logical manner, but on the other hand I have to ask myself how I would feel if myself or someone I loved were the victim of a violent crime that could have been prevented by keeping a particularly dangerous person in jail.

    Of course that still doesn't justify keeping people locked up beyond a reasonable timescale defined by their original sentence, so it makes me more convinced of the suggestion I gave in reply to a previous blog, which is more detailed assessment of prisoners (by humans, not ruddy computers!) so that they can be better categorized according to risk because to my mind, if they do a better job of assessing people in the first place then the risk to the public will diminish.

  3. Goof for you Ben, so sensible. Many many IPP prisoners have committed offences that warranted very short tariffs and of course, since the change in the law would not now be considered dangerous enough to warrant an IPP! So many people do not understand how the IPP works and that includes many of the judges who put these sentences in place when the law was first introduced. Of course, we should keep the really dangerous people in prison but not the people who are no more dangerous than most of the general public. Gaina is right - proper assessment by human beings would identify the many who are not dangerous and could be safely released as recommended by the senior law judge many moons ago - ignored of course by the people with power. I have had a lot to do with people with an IPP, some with tariffs of a few days/weeks - what is the matter with our society when we keep these people in prison in case they commit another offence? The labour government changed the law when they realised what a mess they had created by permitting IPPs with tariffs of less than 2 years - but STILL these people who would not now get an IPP with such a short tariff are in prison with little hope of release. The new government made encouraging noises about possible release of this group - but have now changed their minds. Keeping these short tariff people in prison is unfair, unjust and barbaric - wake up government and show you are fairminded and release them.

  4. Meant to read GOOD for you Ben- sorry about the typo.