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Monday, 12 March 2012

Ipp. Alas, the thousands of people in prison because of it can't jump for joy yet. The Government still lacks the decency to resurrect those suffering this stupid and wicked sentence back into freedom.

The IPP Injustice

A simple tweak of the law by a desperate government has managed to more than double the number of Lifers in under twelve years. Remarkable.

It was once the case that in order to receive a Life sentence you had to do something pretty horrible. Murder, obviously, got you a mandatory life sentence. Then there were discretionary life sentences, dished out for lesser crimes but where Life was a sentencing option. It had to be the case that to receive a discretionary life sentence, there had to be firm evidence that you were either unstable or on an escalating path of violence. Receiving such a sentence was a Very Big Deal.

But the government, faced with some popular panic whose specifics I forget (there are so many), diluted the meaning of the sentence whilst simultaneously broadening its scope.

These sentences are "not really" life sentences, only open-ended ones. The terminology is different but the reality is exactly the same. These are Indefinite Sentences for Public Protection - IPP.

You don't have to do anything particularly serious to receive such a sentence, which is why there are thousand people serving one.

The pettiness of some offences which have attracted these sentences is revealed by the tariff portion of these sentences. The tariff, minimum term, equates with the fixed sentence they would have received before IPPs were invented. The average tariff for IPP's is a mere 18 months; there are those who have had a tariff of one day.

These sentences are a travesty on several levels. Their purpose is fundamentally objectionable. IPP are intended to hold people in prison on an assumption that they pose a future danger to society, hence their open ended nature. When it comes to depriving people of their liberty and inflicting upon them and their families the degradations that flow from imprisonment, I firmly hold that it should be no more than a punishment for the crime already committed.

Detaining people on the basis of what they may possibly do in the future is wholly unjust. It can be dressed up with whatever politico-legal sleight of hand available, but it remains the fact that punishing people for what they may possibly do in future is a repellent act.

Added to these principled objections are practical ones. IPP's can only be released if they can show that they have "addressed their offending behaviour". This is done by completing "offending behaviour courses" and then parading these achievements before the Parole Board.

Alas, the side effect of knee jerk policy making is to speak first, try and make it work later. With IPP's, this means that there are insufficient places on these courses for them to complete them before the end of their tariff. If your tariff is 18 months and the waiting list for the course is 2 years, there is no chance for you to demonstrate before the PB that you are fit for release.

Way over 2500 of those serving IPP's are over their tariff and the Ministry accepts that this is not necessarily the fault of the prisoners. So bizarre and wicked is this situation, that the High Court ruled last year that, in effect, the sentence has become so arbitrary as to become unlawful.

The higher courts plugged this political problem on the well known legal doctrine of "tough shit". And so these men remain in prison. A similar situation applies to those who are due Parole hearings, their only avenue of release. The PB is so overstretched that people are not getting their hearing as prescribed by law, some serving years extra just waiting for the hearing.

The courts have ruled that this is a terrible situation but, alas, there is no one in particular to blame. And so they have now blocked IPP's from launching legal challenges to demand their right to a parole hearing. It's no one’s fault, so we are back to "tough shit".

Actually, we know whose fault it is. It is the governments fault. They invented IPP sentences and talked tough on sentencing. The judiciary responded and used IPP sentences with some vigour. The government, quick to throw people in prison, neglected to provide the resources for these prisoners to undertake their offending behaviour courses, and failed to fund the Parole Board for this doubling of their workload.

This situation reflects a profound shift in sentencing philosophy that was overlooked by legislatures and society. Rather than being sent to prison for a fixed time as a punishment for the crime committed, many are now detained not only for the crime, but on the basis of what they may do in future.

It seems obvious to me that this is a wicked injustice, a shift in philosophy that should have received a wide debate. Even so, to implement this schema without funding the mechanisms to administer it, such the parole board, strips whatever legitimacy may have existed from this shameful enterprise.

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