Increasingly long delays in hearing parole applications from prisoners serving Indeterminate sentences for Public protection (IPP) may cause riots in UK prisons if such delays are not addressed immediately, the government has been warned. However, there are even bigger IPP problems that have to be dealt with if the situation is to improve.
TheOpinionSite.org predicted such a situation over a year ago and now, the former chairman of the Parole Board, Sir David Latham says the government must make more money available in order that the number of panel members can be increased and the delays reduced.
He went on to say: “If you have more people in prison who simply do not know when they are going to be released, then you’ve got the risk of disaffection, you’ve got problems of management. That has all sorts of consequences which people like me, who remember the Strangeways riots and so on, will want to avoid if we possibly can.”
Sir David also warned that the ever longer delays could result in compensation payments to offenders as so many IPP prisoners were now well past their “tariff”, the minimum period of imprisonment to be served.
There are more than 6,500 IPP prisoners in jail and over half of those are past their tariff date. There are also thousands of Life Sentenced prisoners who are also clamouring for hearings before the Parole board, thus piling even more pressure onto a system that has failed completely to address the massive increase in prisoners serving life or indeterminate sentences.
In their efforts to appease the tabloids, charities and lobby groups, successive governments over the last 20 years have created an incarceration monster that is now hopelessly out of control.
When the discredited, former Home Secretary, David Blunkett brought in IPP sentences under Tony Blair, it was estimated that by the current date there would be about 900 such prisoners. Instead, the UK now has 6,500.
Such incompetence in assessing the impact of the IPP sentence is staggering, even for an administration whose only real interest was “sucking up” to the Murdoch press and giving in to well-heeled charities, all of which were desperate for even more public money than they were getting already – and still are.
When it was first suggested that the IPP sentence would be abolished, there were howls of anguish from the NSPCC, Kidscape, Barnados, so called “child protection” experts and even Sara Payne who had effectively been bank-rolled by the Sun and the now defunct News of the World and who complained bitterly at the prospect of IPPs being scrapped.
The government has in fact now passed legislation to abolish IPPs and those listed above, realising that they no longer have quite the influence over government policy that they once enjoyed, are strangely quiet.
However, the government has as yet set no timetable for the repeal of the much criticised IPP sentence, ever fearful of the political and tabloid backlash that will ensue when the sentences is finally killed off. Instead, everything is being kept in the shadows in the hope that nobody notices what is going on – if that is, there is any progress is actually being made anyway.
Right wing Tory MPs such as Phillip Davies are keen to not only keep IPP sentences but also to lock up even more people for even longer – if such a thing is actually possible – and are putting up obstacles to the government’s plans at every opportunity.
The Labour Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan isn’t much help either. Although he recognises that there is a huge problem, he doesn’t want to be the one to solve it for fear of being labelled “soft on crime” by the media and those charities who have to some extent lost their influence over David Cameron’s coalition government.
For all the complaints and calls for longer sentences, Britain still not only imprisons more people than any other EU country but also has the longest sentences in Europe. However, there is no proof that locking people up actually reduces crime at all, not least because the rehabilitation in the UK is so poor that once eventually released, most prisoners go on to reoffend, often through sheer desperation as they slowly realise that the chances of ever working again are virtually zero.
There is another huge problem for the Parole Board as well:
Those convicted of sexual offences or murder are actually the least likely to reoffend. However, they also engender the most public fear, something that is not lost on politicians, especially those that are ambitious and hungry for power.
It is a political fact that anyone can check that when Home Secretaries are in trouble, they tend to very publicly increase restrictions on sex offenders or increase sentences for other high profile offences in an effort to regain public confidence.
As a result of this political paranoia, the prisons remain full, even more criminal offences are created and organisations such as the police and probation services, fearful for their own employment and income prospects, try their best to justify their existence by maintaining public fear, justified or otherwise.
A police officer recently told TheOpinionSite.org that whereas previously Public Protection Units (PPU) were well funded, they too are now subject to budget cuts, have fewer personnel and are expected to cover a wider area than before.
As a result, he went on, PPU officers are anxious to demonstrate that they are needed and this sometimes involved maintaining the public’s perception of “high risk” offenders living in the community whereas, in reality, the actual risk of reoffending by such offenders is relatively low.
Probation officers too, fearful that they may be out of a job, have developed a “risk averse” nature and culture in which it is assumed that all IPP prisoners and others who have committed serious offences are “bound to reoffend” when in reality, most do not. Given that an IPP carries a minimu licence period of 10 years, any IPP prisoner who is eventually released can expect to be recalled to prison at some point, whether he commits another offence or not.
Probation officers have complete control over the released offender’s life for the whole of the licence period and only need to believe that an offender’s behaviour may indicate a possible likelyhood of reoffending for that offender to be sent back to prison for years.
All these factors, particularly the false perception of reoffending, prevent the Parole Board from releasing more prisoners who should have been out of jail long ago. The Board is terrified of ignoring the recommendation of a probation officer that a prisoner should remain in jail in case something goes wrong later. The fact that the probation officer’s assessment of risk may be totally wrong, prejudiced and inaccurate is not even considered.
In order to combat such prejudiced decision making, the government had intended to introduce a new “release test” that would make the Parole Board much more independent and less reliant on the opinion of probation staff but TheOpinionSite.org can report that this proposal too has been put on hold for fear of criticism in the media.
None of this helps reduce the delays experienced by IPP and life-sentenced prisoners. Review hearings for prisoners serving life sentences are projected to increase from 1,604 in 2010/11 to 2,240 in 2012/13, while the number of reviews for inmates serving the controversial IPP sentences is expected to rise from 2,212 to 3,750 over the same period.
Claire Bassett, the board’s chief executive, said the number of indeterminate sentence cases referred to the Parole Board could touch “a new record high” by 2012/13.
“The board has a real challenge ahead of it this year,” she said. “The long-term trend for our caseload to move away from less labour intensive paper hearings towards much more resource intensive oral hearings is set to continue over the next 12 months. We will continue to see an increasing number of oral hearings, driven by the expanded population of indeterminate sentence prisoners.”
When TheOpinionSite.org asked the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office about the problems facing IPP prisoners, particularly sex offenders, they had little to say that made any real difference. Instead, they produced a lot of words that actually said nothing, something that has become typical when addressing such questions.
A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesman said: “We have managed to maintain the Parole Board’s budget for this financial year in the face of significant spending cuts across Government. The Board’s funding is kept under regular review and we will carry on working with it to ensure it is able to meet its responsibilities. The MoJ is also working closely with the Parole Board on ways to minimise the existing backlog of IPP cases.”
What the above actually means is that currently no extra money will be made available, the delays will continue and those who should not be in jail will remain behind bars for some years to come.
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