TheOpinionSite.org has been told by the Ministry of Justice that the proposed changes to Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) will definitely not be retrospective and will definitely not apply to existing IPP prisoners.
This refusal to deal with the problem of some 6,500 existing IPP prisoners, along with the introduction of mandatory life sentences, appears to be a result of political pressure from the Home Secretary, Theresa May who has diametrically opposing views to those of Mr Clarke.
Ken Clarke has proposed in the House of Commons that IPP sentences should be abolished and that those sexual and violent offenders who are convicted of a second serious, similar offence should receive a mandatory life sentence instead. He originally suggested that those IPP prisoners who were past their minimum release period or ‘tariff’ might have had their sentences converted to determinate periods of custody, with some of them being released as a result.
After pressure from David Cameron and Ms May in particular, Clarke has now changed his tune entirely, despite having already made it clear that the IPP was ‘a stain on British justice’ and that it was effectively impossible for an IPP prisoner to prove that his level of risk to the public had been sufficiently reduced to warrant his release. It would seem that the prospect of Cameron being accused of being ‘soft on crime’ was just too much for the Prime Minister to bear.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told TheOpinionSite.org:
“These changes will not be applied retrospectively. Prisoners currently serving IPPs will continue to serve their terms. Each individual prisoner will continue to be assessed on a case by case basis by the Parole Board.
“Serious sexual and violent offenders will not escape jail as a result of abolishing IPPs. We expect more people to serve life sentences as a result of abolishing IPPs. Protecting the public is the government’s top priority.”
This clearly political statement makes it clear that for existing IPP prisoners there is no more hope of release now than there was before Clarke originally made his proposals. With ambitious Labour MPs such as the Shadow Home Office Minister, Gloria de Piero trotting out the populist philosophy of Tony Blair and with Conservative right wingers desperately trying to satisfy the tabloids and protection charities, it is clear that Mr Clarke has not been allowed to do what he should have done in addressing the huge problem of existing IPP prisoners who are past their tariff.
What Clarke has proposed however is some kind of ‘test’ that the Parole Board can use in assessing risk. The purpose of this new test would be to try and circumvent the undue bias in probation reports which tends to exaggerate risk and the fear of reoffending when often there is actually no realistic probably of the offender committing another similar offence. Probation officers are generally risk averse, as are prison officials, those who sit on MAPPA panels, policemen and others responsible for guessing (for that is what they actually do) whether or not it is safe for someone to be released or what their level of risk might be.
Mr Clarke has been forced by Theresa May (who is also the Minister for Women) and others to hold yet another ‘consultation’ on how the new release test should be formulated. Needles to say, this will prevent any changes to the Law from taking place anytime soon but without the consultation – along with the new mandatory life sentence alternatives – the government could run into real difficulties in getting the new law onto the Statute Book.
In practice this mean that IPP sentences will continue to be handed down at a rate of between 80 – 100 per month, the original intention being for about 80 a year. The sentence, introduced by David Blunkett – who now admits that his policy failed miserably – has turned out to be a nightmare for the Prison Service and politicians alike. At a cost of up to £250,000 per IPP prisoner per year, the IPP sentence is a drain on resources as well as being almost impossible to manage in terms of a prisoner’s progression through the system.
TheOpinionSite.org realises that for IPP prisoners and their families this is all bad news. The prospect of a system where those who are genuine about not reoffending might be released from prison seems to have been swallowed up by political opposition based on satisfying the tabloids, the public protection industry and the aims of young, inexperienced and ambitious politicians, many of whom are women and see the IPP as a way of promoting their feminist agenda.
The Parole Board is hugely under-resourced when it comes to making release decisions. It has a backlog of cases which leads to delays of up to 18 months or longer in holding release panels, there are insufficient staff and the Board is constantly under attack from the Probation Service who try to prevent the release of IPP prisoners in any way that they can for fear of being criticised if something should later go wrong.
There are very few hostel places available for post-release supervision, a culture of recalling prisoners to custody for technical ‘breaches’ of their release licence is rife and there is an ingrained belief in young probation officers who have very little experience of life that every serious offender is almost certain to reoffend when in fact such is not the case.
None of this makes it easy for Mr Clarke to address the ‘catch 22’ situation in which IPP prisoners find themselves. As he pointed out to Parliament, IPP prisoners are expected to somehow ‘prove’ that they are safe to release when in reality, given that they are in custody, it is impossible to do so.
Many IPP prisoners should probably not have received the sentence in the first place and only did so because the legislation took the necessary discretion away from judges, something else that Clarke now intends to remedy.
Blair said he was ‘proud of IPP sentences’ and equally ‘proud’ that so many people were being recalled to custody. The Murdoch press led by the Sun and now defunct News of the World, which at the time was supporting (and apparently exploiting) Sara Payne, heralded the sentence as a triumph and a blow against its favourite easy target, child sex offenders. It was only when the sentence began to be handed down to many other types of offender and started wrecking families in the process that the stupidity of the legislation became clear for all to see.
Nevertheless, had Cameron been leading a pure blood Conservative government now, there would be no change to IPP sentences anyway. It is only the influence of the Liberal Democrats that has forced the change, something deeply resented by Theresa May and other power-hungry, Tory right wing MPs. If it were not for the Coalition, even more people would be receiving IPP sentences in an attempt to prove that the Conservatives are the ‘Party of Law and Order’.
TheOpinionSite.org has to say, albeit with a heavy heart, that it is unlikely that there will be any real change in the plight of those currently serving IPP sentences for some considerable time. Politics has once again triumphed over common sense as MPs from all sides try to hang on to power at a time when the money has run out and the electorate are feeling hostile toward the government that it elected.
The sad truth is that May and Cameron, purely for political reasons, have put the brake on any worthwhile reform. There is a danger too that should Clarke be replaced at any time before the new legislation has been fully passed by Parliament, this policy of change will run the risk of being scrapped altogether for the sake of political expediency. It is only Ken Clarke’s own determination that is pushing the proposed changes forward.
The IPP sentence really is a stain on the British justice system but for those already serving one, it is likely that there will be no change to their circumstances any time soon and, unless a new release test can be devised and accepted by the politicians, the Parole Board, police and probation, the prospect of freedom for existing IPP prisoners and their families seems as distant as ever; for the time being at least.