The UK has more than 4,000 offenders languishing in prison on out-dated, open-ended IPP sentences, and it’s time that the situation was resolved. Pressure should be brought to address the problem of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection.
I was party to a decision of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) last month in which the Lord Chief Justice ruled on 13 individual cases applying for permission to appeal against IPP sentences. Every one of the 13 cases was dismissed. This essentially means that the Court of Appeal has turned its back on the majority of the existing IPP population. (More on the Justice Gap on ‘The nightmare known as IPP’)
It’s a decision that has caused great concern to those most affected – the prisoners and their families.
Some of these prisoners have committed relatively minor offences and the punishment warranted by the past offence was measured in months. But many years later they remain detained on the basis of a prevention of risk of future misconduct that does not apply since the abolition – an abolition that expressly recognised these sentences are, to use the Secretary of State’s words, ‘a stain’ on the British justice system, and simply never worked as they were intended to.
The problem of the existing IPP population cannot be allowed to remain without any redress. It results in unfairness in detention of people simply on the basis of chance as to when they were convicted.
IPPs were introduced by the previous Government with effect from April 2005, and were intended to protect the public against criminals whose crimes were not serious enough to merit a normal life sentence but who were regarded as too dangerous to be released when the term of their original sentence had expired. An offender was considered dangerous if the court assessed that there was ‘a significant risk to members of the public of serious harm occasioned by him of further specified offences’.
It is important to emphasise that the Criminal Justice Act 2003 removed all discretion from the court once it was found that the offender was dangerous. The sentence had to be IPP or life imprisonment.
Up to parliament
Although abolished and replaced in December 2012, the changes were not made retrospective and as of March this year, there were more than 4,000 still in custody under a sentence of IPP – that’s about 5 per cent of the total prison population.
In throwing out the appeals of all 13 cases, the lord chief justice Lord Thomas said each had been properly sentenced according to the law as it was at the time, and that it was now up to Parliament to come up with a solution for the thousands of prisoners still in prison past their minimum term.
He admitted that it would not be easy to find a solution to the problem, but stressed that it was Parliament which legislated to establish sentences of IPP in the first place, and therefore it should be down to Parliament to ‘provide a correction’.
It’s a really depressing situation and one which brings into disrepute the British justice system. In effect we have life sentences being served by offenders whose offences never called for a life sentence, and who should have been released years ago based on the punishment merited.
The rules of sentencing must be applied fairly. It is widely recognised that existing IPPs are an issue and it is good that they are being openly debated – the problem is that the problem is not being acted upon and nor does there seem any intention to do so on the part of the Government.
It is hoped that the Secretary of State will sit up and pay attention to this latest warning from the Court of Appeal. The Government’s own spokesperson in the House of Lords (Lord McNally) described the situation as ‘a time-bomb’ when the IPP was being abolished.
So far the fuse remains lit and the countdown continues.
Philip is a barrister at no 5 Chambers