The Truth About IPP Sentences

Government faces new problems over IPP sentence

After a wait of 18 months, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has decided that a major challenge to the IPP sentence will be allowed to proceed.

The case in question, R (James and others) v Secretary of State for Justice [2009] UKHL 22; [2009] 2 WLR 1149, was first heard in the House of Lords before the inception of the UK Supreme Court. The Law Lords decided that although there were insufficient resources in place to allow IPP prisoners to address their offending behaviour and thus attain their freedom, their continued detention with little hope of release was not a violation of their human rights.

As a result, many prisoners serving IPP sentences still languish in jail long after the expiration of their minimum period of  imprisonment existing in a legal ‘limbo’ not knowing when or even if they may one day rejoin the community.

The move by the ECtHR is very bad news indeed for the government which is still reeling from the sustained criticism heaped upon it by right wing MPs and the tabloid press for giving in to a judgment by the Strasbourg court over the voting rights of prisoners and from a ruling by the UK Supreme Court that those on the Sex Offenders Register must be allowed the chance to have their names removed from it.

The court will now examine the argument further and the British government will be asked to furnish a response, probably by April. If the case then proceeds further, it is possible that the court will decide that there has indeed been a breach of the human rights of those concerned.

From a political point of view, the government will be in the same position as it is currently regarding prisoners’ voting rights; it must obey the court ruling but faces committing political suicide if it does so in any meaningful way.

The government’s response so far to these matters is to do the ‘minimum necessary’ to comply but such a stance may only serve to put it back in court.

Although it was the previous Labour administration that introduced IPPs, it is the Coalition that has been left to clear up the mess.

This is no accident as Labour were fully aware of the politically dangerous consequences of compliance with the court ruling. The Daily Mail and the Murdoch press are spoiling for a fight over the various issues regarding prisoners and there are even calls for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention altogether.

For those inside though, this latest development means little, given that the European Court will take a long time to reach a final decision and even if it decides in favour of IPP prisoners, the government will want to put off taking any remedial action for as long as possible.

Meanwhile, the number of  ‘lifers’ of  one kind or another (now nearly 10,000) continues to rise as spending on prisons continues to be cut. The public too is in no mood to be generous and feels that if those who have not committed a crime are going to suffer, then so are those inside. has on many occasions pointed out that prisoners are used as a political football by all governments who in Britain tend to follow America and are reluctant in the extreme to give up their love affair with custody. The result is slow, if any progress, with those who have committed sexual and violent offences being treated particularly harshly for purely political reasons.

These are also often the prisoners who make up the majority of those serving IPP sentences and for them, this judgement will only make that particular situation worse.

So what of the future?

It is always possible that the court will rule in the government’s favour and that will be an end to the matter. However, given that less than 37% of cases are allowed to proceed, there is obviously a strong case against the government and this fact will not be lost on either the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke or his nemesis the Home Secretary, Theresa May who seems set against any reforms that could lead to accusations that the government are being ‘soft’ on crime.

David Blunkett, who was largely responsible for the IPP sentence, together with other right wingers will give the government a very hard time in the run up to any decision by the court. The media too will not be slow in coming forward with its objections to any reform and the Murdoch media in particular will use its not inconsiderable influence to try to prevent any progressive moves from taking place.

If the government loses, there will still be the usual minimalist approach to compliance with the court’s ruling and it will probably also take for ever before any real progress is seen.

The IPP sentence is widely seen as unjust and unfair as at present it is virtually impossible for a prisoner to prove that his risk has reduced to a point where he is safe to release into the community. The Probation Service and the police are also unlikely to be any less biased towards a cautious approach with regard to release in case something goes wrong and they get the blame.

Clarke is set to bring in a formalised ‘release test’ for use by the Parole Board who are the final arbiters when it comes to whether or not someone should be released. However, as and others have pointed out already, no one knows what form this test may take or how it is to be implemented.

The truth is that there is always some risk in everything and there is no way to completely eliminate it. That applies as much to the release of prisoners as it does to crossing the road and IPP prisoners will be living in fear of spending years more in prison whilst politicians on all sides try to get a few extra votes by making a lot of noise about ‘public protection’.

4 Responses to Government faces new problems over IPP sentence

  1. dave
    March 5, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    I, like I think most, agree with the fact that IPP is a horrendous state of affairs for a so-called democratic society ( I think it was Churchill who said you can judge said society on how it treats it’s criminals ), the priveleged , power hungry , game playing politicians should be ashamed , spineless to a man ( or woman ).
    If you commit a crime deemed worthy of a punishment then that is what you should receive, nothing more, nothing less. It should not be the case of saying ok this carries a 5yr sentence so that’s your minimum tarrif and if you can’t prove a negative ( ie. that you are now no longer a danger ) then we’re just going to keep you locked up.
    You cannot run the sentencing of someone based on the ‘opinion’ of a psycologist/probation officer on the future actions of someone else. Even the best intentioned , highly competent of the above are always going to err on the side of caution and those not of that quality will probably err on the side of ‘not on my watch’.
    Just as an add on here I must make a point from Carols post. Carol you cannot say in one breath how unjust it all is and then in the next say except for the child molesters and dangerous people. It is either an unjust system or not.

    • Raymond Peytors -
      March 5, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      I agree. It is both illogical and innacurate to make a distinction. There is no ‘heirachy’ of prisoners. A child molester is no better or worse than a person who savagely rapes an adult or terrorises an old women whilst attacking her with a baseball bat. It is comfortable to condemn ‘paedophiles’ as that has become the social norm and nobody dare say anything else but such a distinction is not necessarily accurate.

      The facts show that a) sexual offenders against children have the lowest reconviction rates of all categories of prisoners except murderers and b) psychologists agree that children will recover from abuse naturally if they are allowed to and are not ‘taught’ to be victims whereas adult vicitms of abuse are far more likely to retain the full trauma of the event.

  2. Jan
    March 4, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I completely agree with the statement written above by carol. I am having to watch my friends health deteriorate rapidly as she struggles to look after her grandson , and wait indefinately for her son to be released from prison three years after his tarriff being served . One day a parole hearing is set , the next week it is cancelled this having happened four times so far, how unfair is that on a human being, it is mental torcher. My friends son is no murderer or rapist , he defended his young family who were being threatened and hit a man with a stick after the police ignored over twenty calls asking for this man to be dealt with, in the end he hit the man himself after one of his children came home sobbing having being threatened again by this person.My friend is sixty four years old and at this rate will be dead and buried before her son is released , she has given up her home to look after her grandchildren with no light at the end of the tunnel. How can this inhumane sentence be justice , when every day in the news we hear of horrendous crimes being committed with little or no punishment and, yet the prisoners unfortunate enough to have been sentenced with an IPP are serving a life sentence for much lessor crimes. We have written so many letters to different departments for help but seem to get nowhere. The annoying thing is that having only having been given one years tarriff , if this had happened now there would have been no IPP and he would have been out to come home to his little boy who cries for his daddy,

  3. Carol
    March 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    I would like very much for the IPP sentences to be used only in the case of sever dangerous prisoners and indeed for Child Molesters. The IPP that have been handed down to prisoners for lesser crimes and indeed remain in prison far longer than someone who has committed murder who will be released when they have served half of the prison sentence awarded to them if no IPP is attached. It is inhumane that ‘human beings’ are locked up for many years past their tarrif just because the correct experienced and acredited psychological proffessionals are not at hand to correctly assess these prisoners for release. The prisoners can not get on the courses that are needed to assist in the release dates etc. These IPP prisoners (not murderers or child molesters) held indefinitely and with their relatives and loved ones on the ouside live a life in limbo. How can this be humane and fair justice. Bring back the determinate sentences whereby the prisoner and their families know what their sentence will be and what period date they aim for. A light at the end of the tunnel…. There are circs 10,000 IPP prisoners currently in the system and many of these should have been released many many years ago. They are costing the Tax Payers Millions of pounds per year and ensuring the Probationary Officers and associated bodies keep their jobs. Again a drain on our resources and taxes the we, the outsiders pay. Abolish these IPP on new and retrospective cases with the exceptions highlighted above. This is a barbaric treamtment to fellow human beings. If animals were kept locked up in confined spaces for who know how long, tens of years etc there would be a public outcry. Is human life worthe less than those of dogs, cats etc etc. What about an outcry for our fellow humans. This is a disgusting law that was passed by David Blunket who is less than pure and honest himself. How would he like to be locked away for years on end… I would willingly put him behind bars for the example that he has shown to the youngsters in the fact that it is OK to have extra marital affairs regardless of the pain caused to others!!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

SPAM protection: Please fill in the missing number... Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.