The government has told TheOpinionSite.org that a timetable for the repeal of the Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) has still not been set, despite the fact that the Bill scrapping the much criticised measure has been passed by both Houses of Parliament; nor have measures yet been put in place to speed up the release of the 4,000 IPP prisoners who have already completed the ‘relevant’ – or “punishment” – part of their sentence.
The delay in setting the reform timetable reflects the huge opposition faced by David Cameron from his own right-wing back bench MPs, many of whom are strongly opposed to any moves that could be seen as a softening of UK penal policy.
The right wing of the Conservative party – including the beleaguered Home Secretary, Theresa May – are terrified that they will suffer criticism from the tabloid media, child protection groups and women’s organisations should prisoners that have often been wrongly labelled as “dangerous” be returned to the community.
The government’s problem is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the public do not understand or even know about IPP sentences and are therefore easy prey for those groups who proclaim the doctrine that the system is always right and that IPP prisoners should never be released; a view regrettably supported by very many police officers, probation staff and prison officials.
When asked by TheOpinionSite.org when the reforms would be introduced, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:
“We intend to replace the widely criticised IPP system, which the public doesn’t have confidence in, with a new regime of tough, determinate sentences. The new regime will restore clarity, coherence and common sense to sentencing.”
When we asked what was being done to assist the progression of those existing IPP prisoners by the introduction of a new, mush fairer “release test”, the spokesman said:
“We have work underway to improve the progress of existing prisoners who are serving IPP sentences by making improvements to assessment, provision of rehabilitative work and parole review processes. We will continue to monitor the situation and look to make ongoing improvements.”
It is fairly obvious from the MOJ statement above that anyone expecting change to come quickly is going to be extremely disappointed. The fact that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is now on its way to Royal Assent and becoming Law is no indication whatsoever that IPP sentences will disappear any time soon or that those already serving them will be released.
The fact that a Bill becomes Law does not oblige the government to immediately enact it. Indeed, there are many Acts of Parliament that have been passed over the years, sections of which have still not been brought into force. A prime example is the provisions in the Prisoners Earnings Act 1996 (Revised 2011) that could allow prisoners to earn a proper wage for the work they do. They could then save for their release, support victims groups and relieve the burden on the taxpayer when released.
Whilst the government is keen to publicise the deductions from a prisoner’s weekly ‘wage’ in order to support victims’ organisations – that is, if the prisoner earns at least £20 pound a week (which most do not) – ministers are frightened of enacting the part of the Act that would enable prisoners to earn a ‘real’ wage for fear of a public backlash due to the current, extremely high rate of UK unemployment.
The reform of IPP sentences is being delayed for fear of similar public criticism, ministers being aware that any move to support prisoners will be rejected by a public that is woefully ignorant of how the criminal justice system works in the UK and still wrongly believes that prisons are places of luxury and some kind of “holiday camp”; in our view, a particularly ignorant view to take unless one has had years of experience of working in a prison, assessing prison standards or having been a long-term prisoner.
For IPP prisoners especially and their families, not knowing when – or even if – the prisoner will be released is not, in the view of TheOpinionSite.org at least, an experience that assists either the promotion of justice or fairness. Nor is it the behaviour expected from what is supposedly a “civilised” society.
There are also practical issues regarding the release of IPP prisoners that plague the government on a daily basis. Not the least the problems of insufficient hostel places, lack of move-on accommodation and an inbuilt tendency of police and probation staff to find an excuse to return the newly released IPP prisoner to jail as quickly as possible, thus making the lives of officials much easier than they would otherwise be. (If any of those officials would like to express a contrary view, they are welcomed to do so by commenting below or by expressing their view in TheOpinionSite.org Forum)
There are approximately 100 “approved premises” – probation hostels to the rest of us – in England and Wales, most of which will not take IPP prisoners who have often been convicted of sexual or violent offences. That is a total of approximately 2,400 beds. Most of those places are filled by long term, non-IPP prisoners convicted of sexual or violent offences.
Even HM Prison Service is making life difficult by refusing permission for IPP prisoners to be transferred to minimum security D Category prisons, something which is almost essential if the prisoner is ever to be released back into the community. Such establishments are afraid of the adverse publicity that would result from an IPP prisoner being allowed to abscond.
Alleged “paedophiles” – for the sake of clarity, that means anyone of any age convicted of any sexual offence involving, affecting or even influencing any person under 16 (or in some cases 18) years of age – will find release almost impossible if they have been given an IPP by a judge, fairly or otherwise.
One must remember that judges have very little or even no discretion when handing down an IPP sentence, the criteria for such a sentence having been laid down by Blair and David Blunkett in such a way as to remove judicial discretion and then passed by Blair’s Parliament for purely political reasons and in order to appease the tabloids and their individual campaigners, the numerous child and women’s protection charities and similar lobby groups.
The question then is: ‘When will the IPP reforms actually happen?’
The answer, at least in the view of TheOpinionSite.org is: “Not any time soon.”
Even if the government had the will to bring in the reforms speedily (which it doesn’t), they would at present be almost impossible to implement. The reasons are numerous but here are just a few that stand out above the rest:
- There are insufficient places available on the programmes and courses that an IPP prisoner must successfully complete before standing any real chance of release
- There are insufficient places at D Category establishments to allow an IPP prisoner to progress towards release, principally because of fear of public criticism should such a prisoner abscond
- There are insufficient places in “approved premises” (probation hostels) for the number of released IPP prisoners who would require them
- It would be political suicide for the government to release large numbers of prisoners who have often wrongly been designated as “dangerous”
- Public ignorance of reoffending rates has been manipulated by successive governments, police and probation staff, resulting in a misinformed public belief that all sex offenders reoffend – despite the fact that sex offenders actually have one of the very lowest rates of reoffending
- The government is afraid of a revolt from the tabloids, its own right wing MPs, the child protection and women’s protection lobby and those who wield power in the probation service and the police
- The current system keeps thousands of people employed
It must also be remembered that, even if an IPP prisoner is eventually released, he will still be subject to a minimum 10 year licence period, during which time he can be returned to prison by the probation service for any reason, even if he does not commit any further offences.
Anyone knowledgeable about the criminal justice system in Britain will tell you that the chances of a prisoner getting through a 10 year licence without being returned to prison at least once are virtually nil. TheOpinionSite.org believes therefore that it is not only the release criteria for IPP prisoners that need revision but also the licence provisions as well; something that is very unlikely to happen under any government of whatever party.
With the already high level of general public dissatisfaction, opposition from those with vested interests and the fact that we have an unpopular government terrified of criticism, it is unlikely that any real reform of the IPP regime will happen any time soon.
There is insufficient money, insufficient will for change in the government and in those who rely on the system for their living, too much political opposition and too little resistance to the numerous charities and individual “experts” that rely on public fear for their very existence. With all that in place, TheOpinionSite.org believes that anyone expecting real changes to the IPP system any time soon should not hold their breath.
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