Monday, November 8, 2010

Crystal Balls

It has been shown, in comments relating to IPP sentences, that some prisoners have committed awful crimes after their release. This is as undeniable as it is deplorable.

IPP sentences are based on a simplistic idea - that some (many thousands) of criminals should be detained until they can demonstrate that they are safe to release. This is more than sentencing with the aim of incapacitation. This is explicitly rehabilitative sentencing, detaining people not for the crime they have demonstrably committed but for the crimes they may commit in future.

There is an obvious objection to this, though it can be dressed up in an infinite variety of sophisticated clothing. The objection is the basis for the sentence, which is a fundamental shift in sentencing philosophy. Sending a person to prison for their past acts is one thing; continuing to detain them on the basis that they MAY commit future crimes is, to me, fundamentally objectionable.

Not only is it repulsive on a philosophical level, it is also nonsense on the actuarial level. If this sentencing philosophy is to be clothed in the most meagre scraps of sanity, it must be possible to demonstrate that future offending is predictable at the individual level.

Obviously, on the aggregate level this can be done. A careful analysis of the histories of prisoners highlights factors which suggest a higher chance of future offending. More prisoners have been in local authority care and have poor educational attainments than non prisoners, for example. And so, on this actuarial level, it can be honestly said that people with those biographical attributes are more likely to end up in prison.

Yet this is a far cry from being able to pick any individual with those attributes and predict their chances of committing crime. This is an impossible prediction to make, though the prison and probation services refuse to face that mathematical truth.

IPP sentences, keeping people in prison for what they may do in future, is based on a statistical lie that attempts to mask a philosophically repugnant shift in sentencing policy.

Of course, some prisoners will commit crimes after release. This is a price individual victims pay in order to protect society from near-arbitrary sentencing. These victims bear a heavy cost, a reminder that that freedom itself must be paid for. A price also paid by thousands of prisoners, kept in prison for what they may possibly do in future.

And yet, I would argue that sentencing should be based upon the crime that a person has committed and never on what he may do in future. At the end of that punishment they should be released. Their future conduct must then be judged on its own merits.


  1. This whole subject really does my head in and I am glad that Ben you are so clear about how ridiculous it is to hand out sentences based on crime to be committed in the future ????!!!! It is really daft and daft in the most unpleasant, controlling and manipulative way.

    We have the same sort of scenario in mental health, we are being assessed by professionals and their ability to predict our future; highly prejudicial practice to say the least.

    With this as their underlying philosophy at the moment, psychiatric services have us over a barrel since we depend on them for all sorts of things, their 'what risk are you / will you be' makes for a most abusive psychiatric system I have the misfortune of experiencing.

  2. The crux of the matter is that people experience remorse and they can change, learning through their experience. Once they have served their sentence they should receive all the help and support they need to have a second chance and make it work, for themselves and for society.

    It is a matter of great injustice that causes deep sadness to me personally, that so many children from institutionalised care, progress to the criminal justice systemt. It is also a fact that a large proportion of prisoner's children will follow in their parent's footsteps. When will we start treating children in our society with the dignity and respect that they are entitled to?