Thursday, February 4, 2010

The IPP Injustce

A simple tweak of the law by a desperate government has managed to more than double the number of Lifers in under ten years. Remarkable.

It was once the case that in order to receive a Life sentence you had to do something pretty horrible. Murder, obviously, got you a mandatory life sentence. Then there were discretionary life sentences, dished out for lesser crimes but where Life was a sentencing option. It had to be the case that to receive a discretionary life sentence, there had to be firm evidence that you were either unstable or on an escalating path of violence. Receiving such a sentence was a Very Big Deal.

But the government, faced with some popular panic whose specifics I forget (there are so many), diluted the meaning of the sentence whilst simultaneously broadening its scope.

These sentences are "not really" life sentences, only open-ended ones. The terminology is different but the reality is exactly the same. These are Indefinite Sentences for Public Protection - IPP.

You don't have to do anything particularly serious to receive such a sentence, which is why there are over five and a half thousand people serving one, and the number rises each week.

The pettiness of some offences which have attracted these sentences is revealed by the tariff portion of these sentences. The tariff, minimum term, equates with the fixed sentence they would have received before IPPs were invented. The average tariff for IPP's is a mere 18 months; there are those who have had a tariff of one day.

These sentences are a travesty on several levels. Their purpose is fundamentally objectionable. IPP are intended to hold people in prison on an assumption that they pose a future danger to society, hence their open ended nature. When it comes to depriving people of their liberty and inflicting upon them and their families the degradations that flow from imprisonment, I firmly hold that it should be no more than a punishment for the crime already committed.

Detaining people on the basis of what they may possibly do in the future is wholly unjust. It can be dressed up with whatever politico-legal sleight of hand available, but it remains the fact that punishing people for what they may possibly do in future is a repellent act.

Added to these principled objections are practical ones. IPP's can only be released if they can show that they have "addressed their offending behaviour". This is done by completing "offending behaviour courses" and then parading these achievements before the Parole Board.

Alas, the side effect of knee jerk policy making is to speak first, try and make it work later. With IPP's, this means that there are insufficient places on these courses for them to complete them before the end of their tariff. If your tariff is 18 months and the waiting list for the course is 2 years, there is no chance for you to demonstrate before the PB that you are fit for release.

Way over 2,000 of those serving IPP's are over their tariff and the Ministry accepts that this is not necessarily the fault of the prisoners. So bizarre and wicked is this situation, that the High Court ruled last year that, in effect, the sentence has become so arbitrary as to become unlawful.

The higher courts plugged this political problem on the well known legal doctrine of "tough shit". And so these men remain in prison. A similar situation applies to those who are due Parole hearings, their only avenue of release. The PB is so overstretched that people are not getting their hearing as prescribed by law, some serving years extra just waiting for the hearing.

The courts have ruled that this is a terrible situation but, alas, there is no one in particular to blame. And so they have now blocked IPP's from launching legal challenges to demand their right to a parole hearing. It's no one’s fault, so we are back to "tough shit".

Actually, we know whose fault it is. It is the governments fault. They invented IPP sentences and talked tough on sentencing. The judiciary responded and used IPP sentences with some vigour. The government, quick to throw people in prison, neglected to provide the resources for these prisoners to undertake their offending behaviour courses, and failed to fund the Parole Board for this doubling of their workload.

This situation reflects a profound shift in sentencing philosophy that was overlooked by legislatures and society. Rather than being sent to prison for a fixed time as a punishment for the crime committed, many are now detained not only for the crime, but on the basis of what they may do in future.

It seems obvious to me that this is a wicked injustice, a shift in philosophy that should have received a wide debate. Even so, to implement this schema without funding the mechanisms to administer it, such the parole board, strips whatever legitimacy may have existed from this shameful enterprise.


  1. I find this situation and its implications very frightening.

  2. That is one of the best written pieces I have seen about IPPs. The person I visit in prison has an IPP with an 18 month tariff and is still there 4 years later. He got the IPP by committing 2 offences 21 years apart! He has had only one parole hearing, should have been having another next month but has been told the Parole Board is 4/6 months behind so he won't get his second hearing (if he gets one 4/6 months later) until he has done nearly four and half years. The offence is at the 'lower' end as one might imagine as he got 18 months tariff. I have had lots of correspondence with the goverment and they say 'tough luck' - alhtough they have now changed the laws about who gets an IPP - you cannot get one with a tariff of less than 2 years now, the government flatly refuses to release the people who had less than 2 years and are so far over tariff. I worked out that as the government now say there are 1225 people with less than a 2 year tariff it is costing us approx.
    £50m to keep them in per year!

    Another interesting point is that the government insist that they will not make the new rules about IPPs not being given if the tariff would be less than 2 years retrospective - but they are willing to use a comparatively minor offence retrospectively (i.e. 21 years before) to create the IPP. Where's the logic and fairness?
    It would be really good if readers of this wonderful blog could write a letter to the government about it and whilst doing that write a second letter about Ben himself who should also be released.

    Just think if the judicial system properly assessed and released people like Ben, and those mentioned above, they would be able to free up hundreds of places in the system and would not need to build mammoth new jails etc.

  3. And it was written: The voice of the people shall rise up and they shall cry out in their anger and terror, “Throw away the key, for they are lowlifes even unto the very last of them!” And the Scribes of the Tabloids shall behold the fruit of their scribbling and their shoulders shall shake with mirth. And the Elders of the People shall lead by following and shall say unto the people, “Done. Vote for me.”

    Ben is in favour of reason over rioting – rightly in my view. But reason falls on deaf ears, mostly. It’s going to take for ever at this rate. Does anyone know of an effective prison reform/abolition org out there? One that actually makes things happen?

  4. If one talks with respect about a strong leader, that person is almost always described as "tough but fair". What weak leaders find is that the tough bit is easy, it's the fair that takes effort and wisdom.

  5. both Orwellian and Kafkaesque

  6. Thanks for this Ben - if anyone feels able could they look at the No.10 website petition about IPPs and consider signing it. Thanks

  7. Found it:

  8. Aside from the utterly unacceptable and unjust treatment of prisoners, surely this ludicrous situation doesn't make sense fiscally? I mean, what would be the comparative costs of providing enough training course placements or parole officers to reduce waiting times by, say, 6 months compared to the cost of incarcerating a person for the same period?

  9. Could not agree more. We sent an open letter to the PM on this issue:

    Dear Prime Minister,

    Re: Cost to the Tax Payer – The IPP Sentence

    Britain is overwhelmed with debt. As the incoming Prime Minister you have the unenviable task of reducing the vast deficit left by the last government. It is time to cut waste from areas in which money is being spent for no ascertainable benefit.

    In March 2010 the total prison population stood at 85,608, which is approximately 800 more than the highest figure predicted for March 2010 . The prisons are, by anyone’s estimation, full. A very significant number of these prisoners are serving Imprisonment for Public Protection. These prisoners are given sentences by judges who set their minimum term – the ‘punishment’ period - at half of the length of a determinate sentence.

    In reality, the expiry of the minimum term is almost never the date on which the prisoner is released. In fact only about 1% of all IPP prisoners have been released and have subsequently stayed out of prison. This means, for example, that someone sentenced to a 12 month IPP in November 2006 (the equivalent to a two year determinate sentence) could technically have been released in November 2007 but could still be in prison today. To date they would have served three years and six months, the equivalent of a seven-year determinate sentence.

    There are approximately 6,000 IPP prisoners in custody, and the figure is rising at a rate of around 70 per month . With the average cost of keeping a prisoner in jail estimated at £40,000 per year this equates to a total of £240m per year for this class of prisoner alone, and which will continue to rise under the current system.

    In order to have any chance of being released on parole, these prisoners are wholly reliant on demonstrating their reduction in risk while in prison. These prisoners are unable to access the courses they need because of the continuing problem of woefully inadequate funding. In a shockingly high number of cases, these people are simply not being given the opportunity to earn their release.

  10. And the second part:

    The previous government admitted that there were no centrally available reliable figures on the number of IPPs waiting to access courses. To compensate for the overcrowding, they embarked on a program of early release for determinate sentenced prisoners. There is a clear contradiction here which, we submit, cannot have been the intention of the sentencing judiciary.

    Rather than being saddled with this enormously inefficient, not to mention ‘inhumane’ , regime we implore you to make your pledged wholesale review of sentencing, including the IPP, a priority. So much money is wasted currently holding individuals in prison who have, because of a lack of availability of courses, been unable to demonstrate that they are no longer dangerous to the satisfaction of the Parole Board.

    We are not suggesting that offenders should not be punished for their offences: On the contrary, we wholeheartedly support your proposals for mini-max sentences. If prisoners have definite dates for their earliest and latest release this will give them an impetus to want to earn release as soon as possible. This will encourage good behaviour amongst all prisoners, rather than just those serving indeterminate sentences who are scared to ‘step out of line’ while those currently serving determinate sentences aren’t as adversely affected if they are punished for misbehaviour.

    Mini-max sentences will reduce pressure on the operation of the Prison Service as a whole by promoting good order inside prisons; they will enable this government to budget more accurately in terms of the annual cost of the Prison Service; and will still act as a sufficient deterrent in terms of serious crime.

    The changes to IPP in 2008 did not go far enough – and there are many, many short tariff IPP prisoners still languishing in jail who were sentenced under the earlier regime. Only abolition of the IPP will put a stop to this wasteful expenditure.

    Yours faithfully,

    Michael Robinson
    Emmersons Solicitors

  11. i think i.p.p.sentences are a form of medieval torcher for the children of prisoners not knowing when their fathers will be coming my son who has served nearly 4 years for a 1 year tarriff and is nearly 3 years over a parole hearing.I thought were in 2010 not 1610 please lets save this goverment millions and let theses people out. I am not talking about Knife crimes or sex affenders but prisoners like my son who was protecting his children after 14,months of harrasment.

  12. I P P sentences are the most unfair system of imprisonment ever . Even with the death sentence at least prisoners knew where they stood they were to die , end of but with ipp the prisoners have no idea how long they will serve , or in fact if they will ever be freed or end there lives behind bars. Should a prisoner with a 1 year tarrif still be behind bars 3 years later without having even been granted the courtesy of a parole hearing (which I do believe is an infringement of a persons human rights ) when are these barbaric sentences going to be disbursed with and the many prisoners being held at her majestys pleasure be released to live the rest of there lives back with their family and children at home. AFTER ALL A YEARS SENTENCE SHOULD BE JUST THAT AND NOT FOUR YEARS. For gods sake isnt it about time someone did away with this inhumane carry on.

  13. I was recently attacked and raped by a man who was not mad just wanted to inflict pain on somebody because his girlfriend left him. I have been left traumatised and i lost the baby that i had been carrying for 7 months. He recieved an ipp sentance and i am glad that he wont get out until he proves himself. It is easy to make judgements on sentances when your not the victim. God nos i used to. The tariff he recieved was only 3 years, do you think he should have recieved more or simply got a community punishment for ruining mine and my families life ? . Not everybody can get it right all the time im glad he never got a mandatory life sentance or simply 10 yrs because knowing he wont get out for a long time is peice of mind when i wake up screaming, when i am affraid to go out . So dont be so quick to dismiss things

    1. god bless you my daughter is in the same situation,my heart goes out to you, x

  14. There has been massive criticism of IPPs and not without justification in many instances. I think the principles underpinning the sentence do have merit. What is wholly wrong is (a) that there are such limited resources for the necessary courses in prisons (b) that Parole hearings are so delayed. With proper resourcing these sentence could work as intended. I understand exactly what 'Anonymous" above means. I know of a case where a man with a history of violence and sex-offending indecently assaulted a woman in a park, in front of her grandchild just days after he was released from an earlier sentence. Rightly, in my view, he was given an IPP and has to show his risk to others is sufficiently reduced prior to release.

  15. My son is currently serving a 3 year IPP of which he has served 18 months. He has already been moved prison twice due to the fact that they do not offer the courses he needs to complete in respect of the IPP let alone satisfy the parole board. He is in the process of being moved again to access the relevant courses. In the meantime he is taking on extra courses. To add to this he is being stopped by the local authroities from being able to see his children and his younger siblings even though he has never indirectly or directly been a threat or caused harm to them. I do not condone the reasons as to why my son finds himself in this situation, however, I do believe that he has a right to be rehabilitated. How can he do this when he has no prospect of release, no access to the courses he needs to do and the emotional turmoil of not even being able to have contact with his extended family. I understand that in certain circumstances an IPP is appropriate according to the crime that was inflicted and I am not disputing that my shouldnt have received this punishment. However, how can my son or anyone else serving an IPP show that they are a reformed character and no longer a threat to society if the system fails them to do so.

  16. I'm sensing that lots of people have an idea of 'justice': Wardens, police, lawyers, judges, convicted people, unconvicted people, victims, non victims and so on. It seems obvious that justice means different things to different people. Some have different opinions within similar categories.
    All cases are in my opinion massively complicated.
    I reckon that, collectively, we are the 'most knowledgeable' people to inhabit earth so far...(libraries at our fingertips etc.)
    Although, knowledge is available, it (imo) aint helpin us any.
    We still stuck.
    For example, i worked with this chap (in general a nasty type with occasional decency and tons of v. diahroea) who said stuff that stayed with me; he'd been inside for 7 years, and would often remark "i'd do another 3 out of principle" . Describing a potential sentence for a beating he would inflict upon another.
    I've an idea that this attitude aint too uncommon.
    Its almost bearable when seeing this as two dumb/tough males wanting to beat seven bells o's..t outta each other... but template the action to a sexual or physical or mental situation where the concerened parties are unequal...
    Raping out of some deranged principle?
    I think that we have to accept that people have and continue to act in this manner.
    Society has decieded these people need to be controlled. Or perhaps destroyed.
    Imagine... "i'm free at last, those bastard screws kept me in for 4 years too long, i know, ill rape someone to prove i don't mind jail'
    ... if i've upset anyone i'm sorry...i've upset myself too.
    I can see the idea that IPP demonstrates the muscle of law and order, controlling whoever at will.
    I suppose justice has evolved to what it is now despite its incomprehensible nature. Evil people are human beings. Judges are human beings. All will fail at some point. (High Court judge that was convicted for years of child abuse towards her daughter springs to mind).
    It looks like the trouble will always be, as Ben has pointed out numerous times, how to make the call? What does he have to do to prove he is 'minimal risk', same as everyone else? Will he change attitude to a psycho once he is described as safe?

    I find paradoxical dilemmas such as this very unhelpful. Very easy to talk bullsh.t on paper.

    Personally, i believe all people can do right by all. No matter what their history. No matter how evil the deed. No matter how many repititions of evil deed. And yes, in our lifetime. And no, not thru drugs/surgery.


  18. Thank you Ben a great write up on the Ipp.If you dont mind i will share and quote.

  19. my daughter has been raped and beaten by an ipp prisoner who was let out,he was so called rehabilitated,infact he was rehabilitated that well that he left her fighting for her life,she has lost everything,she is in a safe house now,we will never see our daughter again because we have to keep her safe,we have panic alarms and we cannot leave our house,our life is in tatters,what about the victims?


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