The Guardian view on indefinite sentences: still blighting thousands of lives | Editorial

Prisoners detained under the abolished imprisonment for public protection scheme deserve justice

Two years ago, a former supreme court justice described the imprisonment for public protection (IPP) scheme, introduced in 2005 for offenders deemed to be a risk to the public, as “the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system”. As a new report published by the House of Commons justice committee makes damningly clear, its iniquitous legacy still blights the lives of thousands of prisoners in England and Wales.

Originally intended to target very serious offenders, IPPs were scrapped 10 years ago after being issued far more widely and inconsistently than anticipated. Close to 9,000 prisoners were warehoused indefinitely by the state, many without due cause, and plunged into the mental torment of a “never-ending” sentence, with no conventional path to release. Lord Blunkett, the Labour home secretary who introduced the scheme, has since acknowledged the disastrous consequences of the policy for prisoners.

It is therefore a national scandal that offenders who had the misfortune to be tried while IPPs were still in force continue to suffer those consequences. For a decade, successive home secretaries have dodged the moral obligation to address such cases and provide adequate resources to deal with the complex issues they raise. The MPs’ inquiry found that almost 3,000 offenders remain behind bars under IPP terms, with no way of knowing when or if they will be released. More than 600 have been kept in prison for at least 10 years more than their minimum sentence, of whom 188 received a tariff of less than two years.

Many have been convicted of offences far less serious than those envisaged when the original legislation was drawn up, but have fallen foul of risk-averse parole boards. Others have been recalled to prison and indefinite detention after relatively trivial breaches of release conditions. MPs received testimony regarding the case of one prisoner convicted of causing a fire in his own cell, while serving a prior tariff of less than two years. Sentenced to an IPP, he has now served a total of 14 years in custody for the offence of arson.

The justice committee’s report rightly calls for all prisoners detained under IPPs to be re-sentenced, and for the period in which they can be recalled after release to be halved from 10 to five years. Having acquiesced in outrageously disproportionate treatment of so many individuals, the state also needs to spend some money putting matters right. As the committee’s chair, Sir Bob Neill, points out, the cruel and open-ended manner in which these offenders have been convicted and sentenced has created its own unique set of challenges, which the parole process – as currently constituted – is ill-equipped to address. Proper resources must be set aside both to examine each case on its merits, taking into account the need to protect the public and to assist in rehabilitation and mental health support. Communities should be provided with the means to attempt the reintegration of IPP prisoners on release.

These individuals have been grievously let down by a justice system that has acknowledged its error but failed to make amends. The publication of this report must be the catalyst for that process to belatedly begin.

Contributor

Editorial

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