As predicted over a year ago by TheOpinionSite.org, the Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke has confirmed the government’s intention to scrap the now notorious Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP). However, after his most recent interview this morning on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, there is considerable confusion as to what will happen to those who are currently serving such sentences. Nor is it clear how long all this will take.
In the meantime, courts will continue to hand down IPP sentences at a rate of around 100 every month.
What Mr. Clarke seems to be implying is that all but the most dangerous offenders currently serving IPP sentences will have their sentence converted to a determinate sentence equal to the tariff – the minimum time to be served – of their original IPP sentence. It is unclear however as to whether this will actually be possible – if indeed this is Mr. Clarke’s intention – given that this would mean anything up to 3,000 prisoners being released back into the community, presumably under some form of probation supervision.
Previously, such a situation has been considered as being politically unacceptable even if, as many others have stated along with this website, it would be the right thing to do.
With regard to the new sentencing proposals though, things are somewhat clearer. IPP’s will be scrapped but Mr. Clark wants the introduction of new mandatory life sentences for any offender who is convicted of a “serious” sexual or violent offence on a second separate occasion. To attract the new mandatory life sentence, the determinate sentence that would have been given to second time offenders must have been certain to attract at least 10 years in prison.
Actually, this is nothing new and is more or less what used to happen before the introduction of the IPP sentence to repeat offenders who committed serious offences. There will also be a provision for the judge to hand down something other than a mandatory life sentence if the judge believes that such a sentence would be unjustified given the facts of the case.
Other determinate sentences will now require that prisoners serve at least two thirds of the total sentence before being released. This is also in accordance with what used to happen in the past.
Returning to those who are already serving an IPP sentence, now totalling 6000 or more and of whom over 3,000 are past their minimum custody period or “tariff”, Mr. Clarke can expect a rough ride in the House of Commons when the new measures are debated next week.
Many backbench Tory MPs and almost all previously ‘Blairite’ Labour MPs are against repealing the IPP sentence and are making enormous capital from the prospect of thousands of “dangerous” offenders being released back onto the streets.
Mr. Clarke freely admits, correctly in the view of TheOpinionSite.org, that the IPP sentence is “absurd” and that is his intention to generally get rid of all the “populist nonsense” in sentencing that was introduced by the last Labour government, mainly at the behest of the tabloid newspapers and child protection groups.
This is a brave move indeed and is unlikely to have seen the light of day were anyone other than Ken Clarke in charge of the Ministry of Justice. Few other politicians would have the courage or the stamina to do what he is doing.
Having said all that, the confusion is exacerbated by Mr. Clarke’s other statement this morning during his interview that “The Parole Board has no scientific way of determining whether or not somebody will reoffend”, a point that he has made before. Previously however, Mr. Clarke intimated that the Parole Board would be given a standard, formalised test to apply to prisoners seeking early release from a sentence.
This idea seems to have been kicked into the long grass, presumably because no one could come up with a suitable test or one that was acceptable to those charged with the responsibility of deciding whether or not a serious offender should be released back into the community.
Currently, most influence on the Parole Board comes from the Probation Service in the form of reports which are nearly always damning in nature, highly subjective and often highly inaccurate when it comes to describing the true likelihood of someone reoffending.
It was in an attempt to rid the Parole Board of the hideous bias introduced by risk averse probation officers during the consideration of release and rehabilitation in the community that the test was to be introduced. It looks now as if Mr. Clarke has been forced to abandon the idea of a formalised test and means that probation officers will be allowed to go on getting things hopelessly wrong and to continue to introduce their own bias and prejudice into release procedures.
If it is indeed Mr. Clarke’s intention to release those IPP prisoners who have already completed their tariff back into the community – although he has already intimated that around 20 such offenders will instead be given mandatory life sentences instead of an IPP – panic will be prevalent in local probation departments all over the country.
The Probation Service have already made it clear that in their view they already have insufficient staff to satisfactorily monitor those in their charge. This particularly applies to sexual and violent offenders, many of whom will be serving IPP sentences.
There are also potential logistical problems with Mr Clarke’s intended actions. Nearly all sex offenders who are released from prison are forced into what are known as “Approved Premises”, small institutions holding around 24 people and which are run by or on behalf of the Probation Service.
These highly supervised hostels, unlike common bail hostels, operate under a system of “Enhanced Supervision” where every aspect of a released offender’s behaviour is monitored, recorded and reported. Decisions as to how a particular offender’s risk will be managed are then taken by the offender’s probation officer, now known as the “Offender Manager” in conjunction with the local Multi Agency Public Protection Panel or MAPPA.
Given that there are only about 100 hostels in the country in total and that only about 10% of these are suitable for enhanced supervision procedures, it would clearly be chaotic if 3,000 or more IPP prisoners, including many sex offenders, were suddenly released straight back into an already mistakenly terrified and hysterical community.
This is a prospect that has already been attacked by right wing Tories, many Labour MPs, child protection organisations, women’s groups and inevitably, the tabloid newspapers as being completely unacceptable.
Mr. Clarke has also not made it clear as to who will determine whether or not an IPP prisoner has his sentence converted to a determinate sentence or, if the case is serious enough, a mandatory life sentence. One may presume that this procedure would be carried out by the Parole Board, no doubt with all possible interference from the Probation Service who are already fearful that their overbearing and unjust influence over release decisions may be under attack.
It is also fairly safe to assume that for political reasons if no other, those who have been convicted of child sex offences are more likely to be in the firing line when it comes to the awarding of mandatory life sentences. TheOpinionSite.org can say this with some confidence as Mr. Clarke has already made it clear that it is the government’s intention to expand the scope of the definition of “serious offences” to include child sex offences, terrorist offences and offences where a child has been allowed to die.
In our opinion this is a dangerous route on which to embark as it invites “mission creep” and the “ratcheting up” of sentences for those deemed by populist newspapers and those with vested interests as being “dangerous to the public”.
If Mr. Clarke is truly intent on getting rid of the “populist nonsense” introduced by Tony Blair and his cronies, all of whom seem to have been in the pockets of Rupert Murdoch and others, then he should think again about expanding the meaning of “serious offences”.
As previously stated, all these new measures are to be discussed in the House of Commons next week and we can expect a fiery exchange between those who can see the commonsense inherent in Mr. Clarke’s proposals and those who may feel that the somewhat fragile pedestal upon which they have placed themselves may collapse.
We can expect too a howl of anguish from all those involved with any form of public protection and whose jobs and considerable income rely on maintaining the myth that everyone convicted of certain types of offences must be “dangerous” and incapable of change.
TheOpinionSite.org sincerely congratulates Mr. Clarke on the brave stance that he is taking in introducing what are by anyone’s reckoning, radical reforms. On the other hand, we urge caution in exactly how these measures are executed.
We share the views of those such as Francis Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform who, like us, has made the point that Britain already has more life sentence prisoners than the rest of Europe put together and also locks up more children than any other European country, something else that is likely to increase under Mr Clarke’s proposals.
One would have thought that given the American experience of mandatory sentencing, something that has almost bankrupted certain states in the US, the last thing that Britain would want to introduce would be more mandatory life sentences, particularly given the current financial situation and the inevitable high cost of maintaining such prison sentences. There is a suspicion therefore, in this office at least, that Mr. Clarke is to a certain extent being driven by political compromise.
With the introduction of more mandatory life sentences and an emphasis on child sex offences, violent offences and terrorism, it would seem that Mr. Clarke is trying to head off opposition from the loudest voices in the Conservative party and the tabloid papers.
We do not believe that the idea of more mandatory life sentences came from Mr. Clarke himself given that he has previously stated quite firmly that he is against mandatory sentences as they take away discretion from judges when sentencing and sometimes do not reflect all the salient facts of the case.
To that extent at least, TheOpinionSite.org believes that these measures have David Cameron’s fingerprints all over them and that he was no doubt assisted in his offending against reality by the vicious, ambitious and thoroughly self-seeking Home Secretary, Theresa May.
It is also essential for all those who have friends or family in prison currently serving IPP sentences that there should be clarity as to what will happen to those prisoners. It needs to be made crystal clear which IPP sentences will be converted to determinate sentences, if indeed that is Mr. Clarke’s intention, which cases may be considered sufficiently serious to warrant a mandatory life sentence and, perhaps most importantly of all, how these decisions will be made and by whom.
Until clarification of the new sentencing proposals are presented, confusion will continue to reign and the prospect of even more people being locked up for even longer periods of time will loom over the justice system. This is in sharp contrast to Mr. Clarke’s stated intention of reducing the prison population and makes no sense at all at a time when the trend in ‘serious’ crime is uncertain, the money has run out and more and more people are becoming unstable in their behaviour.
TheOpinionSite.org believes that Mr. Clarke and his team, brave though they are, need to think very seriously before finalising their plans for IPP and mandatory life sentences. If they do so and if they are able to find an acceptable and realistic mechanism by which those already serving IPP sentences can be released, we will see at last the reverse of one of the most unjust and unfair sentences ever introduced into the British criminal justice system; a sentence that was introduced for purely political reasons by a Labour government supported by a right wing Tory opposition, both of which were obsessed with populism and carrying favour with the tabloids.