In August 2007, nearly three years ago, I wrote (again) in this blog about the scandal of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), under which people sent to prison for, often, quite minor offences, can’t be released, even after they have served the ‘punishment’ part of their sentences, until they can convince a Parole Board that they won’t reoffend when they leave jail. That post has now attracted almost 150 ‘comments‘ , very many of them expressing anguish at the impossibility of knowing when a beloved husband, partner, son or brother will be released from prison — often expressing, indeed, the fear that he might never be released. In the same period, all the major UK organisations working for the reform of our crime and prison laws have condemned the IPP system as unjust, inhumane and a waste of public money.
The change of government last month (May 2010) has brought a ray of hope that this indefensible system might soon be abolished. Yesterday I submitted the following letter to the Guardian for publication:
Polly Toynbee is right to point to the obscene waste of public money involved in short-term prison sentences which achieve nothing (Forget being tough, it’s time to get realistic on crime, Comment & debate, 22 June). She might also have mentioned the folly, waste and injustice of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), which currently add massively to shameful overcrowding in our prisons. They waste public money on a vast scale by keeping in prison thousands of
people who have served their sentences imposed for punishment, rehabilitation and deterrence but who can’t prove to a Parole Board that they won’t reoffend if released, often because there are no places for them on the behaviour courses which they need to attend as a virtual condition for release.
These people are in preventive detention, being punished for future offences they haven’t committed, often with no hope of release, fearing that they are in prison for life, having already been punished for often quite minor offences. The onus is on them to prove a negative about the future, which is conceptually impossible as well as reversing the normal onus of proof. The proportion of IPPers so far released is minuscule. Justice Department ministers of the new government have acknowledged that the system is unacceptable: Crispin Blunt told parliament on 15 June that “We have 6,000 IPP prisoners, well over 2,500 of whom have exceeded their tariff point. Many cannot get on courses because our prisons are wholly overcrowded and unable to address offending behaviour. That is not a defensible position.”
It’s inhumane, unjust and a monumental waste of taxpayers’ money. All parties should now insist that the system is swept away and those IPPers who have served their minimum sentences should be released forthwith, either unconditionally or on licence. Here’s a useful cut in government spending that will benefit everyone.
22 June 2010
A version of this letter is published in today’s Guardian (scroll down to the third letter on the web page), but so indiscriminately ‘edited’ that many of the main points I had hoped to make have been amputated (indeterminate sentences are not even identified as ‘IPPs’ in the published version!). Still, what was published is probably better than nothing.
Recently Michael Robinson, a partner in a firm of solicitors with extensive experience of IPPs and the injustices they inflict, wrote to the new prime minister:
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.
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.
 Prison Population Projections 2009-2015
 Pre-election Conservative line on IPP
 Pre-election Conservative line on IPP
 Jack Straw, House of Commons Hansard Written Answers 16th June 2009
 Independent Monitoring Board
Under the Conservative-LibDem coalition agreement the government is to set up a review of sentencing policy. This is to report by October. Taking into account the parliamentary summer recess, that doesn’t leave all that much time to make sure that the sentencing review will conclude that the whole IPP régime should be wound up (there should be no attempt to ‘improve’ it, since it’s inherently flawed) and that all IPPers should be automatically released at the end of their tariffs (‘minimum sentences’). There may be a case for introducing ‘mini-max’ sentences; but that’s a separate issue which should be independently debated.
If you agree, therefore, that it’s time to get rid of IPPs as a blot on our justice system and a wicked waste of money, please write to or email your MP, urging that the sentencing review should include a review of IPPs and that this should lead to their outright abolition. Ask your MP to make urgent representations accordingly to the Justice Secretary (Kenneth Clarke). Please give your reasons in your own words — but then I recommend that you also attach or enclose a copy of the letter I submitted to the Guardian (the full text as submitted, quoted above) if your MP is Labour, LibDem, Green or a nationalist party member): or, if your MP is a Conservative, I suggest that you attach or enclose a copy of Mr Robinson’s letter to the prime minister, also quoted above. By all means also invite him or her to read http://www.barder.com/696 and especially some of the heart-wrenching comments underneath it.
This is an opportunity to rid ourselves of a system which is unjust, which causes untold fear, misery and anguish, and which wastes millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, all to no purpose whatever. The opportunity may be unrepeatable. Please take ten minutes now to help ensure that the government and parliament do the right, necessary thing, soon.
Update (25 June 2010): A shortened version of this post is now published on the left-of-centre website, Labour List: you can read it here. It’s already attracting an interesting and sympathetic debate in comments, and I hope it might prompt many more letters to MPs while there’s still time to influence the government’s review of sentencing policy. Thanks to those who have already been in touch with their MPs in response to this Ephems post (see comments below).