By the time the government returns to Parliament later this month, the review into the management and operation of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) should have been concluded. However, regrettably it seems that there is still turmoil within the government as to exactly what it should do, not just regarding the future operation IPP sentences but also how to handle the 3,500 cases of those who are already past their tariff expiry date and are therefore eligible to apply for parole.
David Cameron must be cursing the day that Tony Blair and his long discredited Home Secretary, David Blunkett first introduced what is now regarded as the most unjust and ill thought out piece of criminal legislation ever to make it into British law. The legacy of the sentence, which was supposed to only be used sparingly and in extreme circumstances, is that even after reforms by the previous Labour justice secretary, Jack Straw and after more modifications from the present government, there is still an average of 100 IPPs being handed down every month
The reality of this sentence, hideous though it is in its conception, is that people subject to what should have been a sentence used only occasionally (though in fact its use has become more and more frequent) are lodged in jail for an indefinite period with no idea as to when or even if they may ever be released. This is not only bad for the prisoners but is also a living nightmare for their families, many of whom have contacted TheOpinionSite.org.
After the changes introduced by Jack Straw, the minimum tariff was changed to 2 years but there are still plenty of people serving IPP sentences with tariffs of much less than that. Indeed, it is sad that TheOpinionSite.org must report that there is one person serving an IPP with a tariff of only 96 days, yet they have been in prison already for several years.
The biggest problem for the now Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke is that the system simply cannot afford to go on in the way in which it has previously. Money has to be saved whether Tory backbenchers like it or not.
IPPs are an incredibly expensive mechanism and their proliferation has meant increased spending over the last few years with no real money available. By the time you have added IPP sentences to already existing and future life sentences, the figures are horrifying with more than 15,000 people in prison serving an indeterminate sentence of one type or another. That is more than in all the other countries of Europe put together.
With the vindictive Home Secretary,Theresa May on one side and an ever weaker David Cameron on the other, both of whom are absolutely terrified of appearing to be in any way “soft” on crime, one would have thought that Clarke had enough to deal with even at that level. His problems though are multiplied when one takes into account the degree of hostility from his own backbench colleagues who hate being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and who not only wish to lock up even more people but are also vehemently against releasing any of those already in prison, especially those serving indeterminate sentences.
With MPs such as the likes of Philip Davies and John Mann preaching tougher sentences and more prison for everyone, the Daily Mail and the Sun shouting together in an attempt to keep more people inside for longer and the general public fed up to the back teeth with a government that seems totally absorbed with the idea of taking as much money from the public as possible, it is hardly surprising that Ken Clarke is finding prison and sentencing reform tough going.
Always ready for a fight, Clarke is ready to take on those who oppose his reforms and is not frightened to say so either. This apparent defiance of the will of his own party is hayed by the Prime Minister whose sides against him at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary, who cannot stand the sight of Clarke and who is diametrically opposed to every policy that he brings forward, constantly tries to muddy the waters at every opportunity.
Whilst David Cameron fights for survival and tries to appear to be in control, his Theresa May is standing just behind him, ready to thrust the knife between his ribs in the hope of becoming leader of the Conservative party herself. In this respect at least, Clarke is not involved and is relatively safe in as much that he has no political ambitions left, having at some point held virtually every senior position in government that it is possible to hold.
Clarke just wants to get on with the job and is becoming increasingly frustrated by those who seek to get in his way. He knows full well that reform is essential if the penal system is to survive without bleeding the budgets of other departments dry. Having cut the prison budget massively already, if further savings are to be made then sentence reform is essential.
He has already lost £130 million worth of savings due to the fact that his proposals on a 50% reduction in sentence for an early guilty plea were reversed by Cameron in order to satisfy the tabloids.
The government knows it has to do something but is in many ways in an impossible position. It is not politically possible or viable to suddenly release more than 3,000 prisoners who rightly or wrongly have at some time during their sentence beeg classed as being “dangerous”, whatever that may mean.
It is a certainty that they are not all in fact dangerous but once labelled, no one in the criminal justice system is going to back down on a previous classification of an individual, even if that classification was in fact at fault. Such decisions are made by probations officers who are all incapable of ever admitting they might have got things wrong.
There is also a logistical problem in that IPP prisoners, whatever their tariff may be, are subject to a minimum 10 year licence period once released. This puts enormous strain on the probation service who are charged with supervising the behaviour of offenders in the community and also puts pressure on the police who are also responsible for monitoring those convicted of serious offences once they are released.
If they are fortunate enough to be released at all, most IPP prisoners would be expected to spend some time at least in a secure probation hostel where they can be closely observed under what is known as “enhanced supervision”. The problem is that there are not very many suitable probation hostels available and those that do exist are full and are likely to remain so as the endless stream of prisoners continues to take every space available in institutions that rarely hold more than two dozen people at a time.
Clarke’s proposals include the provision for a minimum 10 year tariff, something that he will probably be able to get through even though there will doubtless be much opposition to such a proposal. Thus the number of IPP sentences given in future should be reduced significantly; unless that is the law of unforeseen circumstances plays a part and judges decide that cases are exceptional when in fact they are not. In such cases someone who under the new provisions should not receive an IPP may still find themselves serving one.
David Cameron has not been receiving good advice recently and has made silly comments regarding the rioters in London, the Human Rights Act and prison reform in general. He is prone to making comments that cannot be substantiated and is keen on proposing more tough measures even though the Treasury telling him that there is no more money to spend on prisons and law and order. He is frightened of his own backbenchers, is a good front man but has little substance and also has the rare distinction of being trusted by nobody.
Clarke on the other hand is a likeable sort of bloke and is generally liked by most people in parliament, even if they do not necessarily agree with his politics. The current Home Secretary is one noticeable exception and she will do whatever she can to derail Clarke’s plans. Nevertheless, it is this likeable quality and his no-nonsense approach that fills one with the hope that Ken Clarke may indeed get his own way and that we will see some real reform to both prisons and sentencing.
It will not be an easy trick to pull off but TheOpinionSite.org believes that it is possible that over the next 12 months or so there may be a genuine reduction in the number of offenders who receive an IPP sentence and that some sensible means of dealing with those who are already sentenced may be formulated. How many politicians fall by the wayside in the process however and what political injuries they may receive remains to be seen.