The Guardian strikes two vigorous blows against IPPs
An editorial in today’s Guardian and an accompanying column by Simon Jenkins state with admirable vigour the unanswerable case against the vicious system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs). Both should be compulsory reading for anyone who cares about justice, or who has any lingering doubts about the affront to fundamental principle represented by IPPs. Both Guardian pieces rightly lambast the Labour leadership of Ed Miliband (unfortunately confused with his brother in Jenkins’s column, a typo that must have Simon chewing the carpet this morning) and Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, who happens to be my MP and a friend, for their cowardly failure to come out loud and clear against IPPs. Presumably they are still intimidated by the instigators of IPPs, David Blunkett and Jack Straw, who don’t want their dismal ministerial records disowned — unless it’s the synthetic wrath of the Sun and Daily Mail newspapers that is frightening them into their lamentable defence of the indefensible.
Some of the comments on the Guardian editorial (“Sentencing: Bloodlust for life”) on the paper’s ‘Comment is Free’ website make sad reading, reflecting the fog of ignorance and prejudice that surrounds the whole issue of IPPs. In reply to one of these, by no means the worst, I have added my own two-penn’orth of support for IPP abolition:
It’s sad to read the pedantic criticisms by the anonymous ‘syncretist’ of this powerful and cogent editorial, which makes an unanswerable case for abolishing IPPs. The ‘presumption of liberty’ is a pithy way of stating the principle that a person who has completed his punishment is entitled to be released unless there’s an overwhelming likelihood that he’ll be a danger to society if he is, whereas under the perverse logic of IPPs the onus is on the prisoner to prove that he won’t reoffend — an impossible requirement, as the editorial rightly points out.
‘Kafkaesque’ is an apt word for the dilemma described — where the IPP prisoner can’t convince the parole board that it’s safe to release him until he has taken a specified course, eg in anger management, but when he applies for a place on the course, he is turned down because he isn’t assessed as sufficiently dangerous to warrant a place on it! Kafkaesque indeed — and Helleresque too, as you say (a classic case of Catch 22). Also Alice in Wonderland. It accurately describes the nightmarish predicament that IPP prisoners who have paid their debt to society and completed the punishment imposed by the court are still likely to face — effectively a life sentence for an offence that no-one could possibly think deserves imprisonment for the rest of a person’s life.
Not a single penal reform organisation and not a single authority with experience of penal affairs, from former Inspectors of Prisons to the Chair of the Prison Governors Association, or from Liberty to the Prison Reform Trust, supports the retention of IPPs. Their continued use is an affront to justice and Labour’s opposition to their abolition is indeed shameful (and I write as a lifelong Labour supporter). Well said, Guardian (and also Simon Jenkins on the preceding page).
IPPs are unjustifiably wrecking the lives of tens of thousands of people — nearly 7,000 IPP prisoners who have no way of knowing whether they will ever be released, and their families, partners and friends who dread the real possibility that they will never see their loved ones return to their homes again. The system will be abolished if Parliament passes the relevant clauses of Ken Clarke’s reform Bill now going through its various stages. Unfortunately the same Bill includes much more questionable provisions as well, including indefensible limits on legal aid and backward-looking proposals for new mandatory sentences for the most serious offences, in addition to those for murder. Swallowing the latter may be the price that has to be paid for getting rid of IPPs, which must be the top priority. If you care about justice and want to see the righting of a great wrong, please use every means open to you — blogging, Tweeting, Facebook, writing to your MP or a national newspaper — to urge everyone to read the two forceful pieces in today’s Guardian, and to use whatever influence you might have with the Labour Parliamentary leadership to shame it into supporting the abolition of IPPs, now at last in sight.
PS: For more detail of the monstrous defects of IPPs, please see earlier posts on this website here, here, here, here and here — including the comments on them and links in them to yet more articles on the subject. And having read all that, have a very happy Christmas.