A comprehensive report on IPPs demands urgent reform

In a recent blog post (here) I recommended some daunting facts and figures on Indeterminate Sentences (IPPs) published earlier this month in a Prison Reform Trust ‘Bromley Briefing’.  The text of the relevant section of the Factfile is here.

The Prison Reform trust has now (8 July 2010) published a 74-page report,  Unjust Deserts: imprisonment for public protection [PDF], containing a full academic and practical analysis of the whole system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection, the fruit of two years’ research. The report is a damning indictment of the system — its underlying philosophy, its inherent unfairness, and the fatal way in which it is mismanaged in practice.  There are a number of conclusions and recommendations, the first of these being that the system should be abolished and determinate sentences substituted for indeterminate sentences still being served.  You can read selected extracts from the report here, and a general summary of it here (“8 July 2010: ill-drafted IPP sentence leaves thousands locked up in bureaucratic limbo“).

The report spells out in detail:

  • the way the system of IPPs was originally misconceived and carelessly drafted, resulting in consequences that were neither intended nor foreseen:
  • how it is inherently unjust, relying on a mistaken belief that it’s possible to foresee an offender’s future behaviour in hypothetical future circumstances and on unsupported faith in the efficacy of prison courses to change behaviour while addressing only a small part of the roots of offending behaviour: and
  • how the system is incompetently administered, grossly under-staffed and under-resourced, resulting in totally unnecessary costs to the taxpayer of something like £100 million so far, with costs steadily increasing.

One of many depressing features of the report is its revelation that with very few exceptions all the judges and psychologists who contributed their comments to the authors of the report were in favour of the IPP concept, some strongly so:  apparently unable to see anything wrong with a system that abandons the concept of punishment being proportionate to the offence committed, substituting the proposition that a person who has served the punitive part of his sentence, but can’t prove that he will not reoffend if released, can properly be incarcerated for years, and indeed in principle for life, being harshly punished for future offences that he or she has not committed and might well never commit if released.  This is risk aversion gone mad.  It’s worrying that so many of our judges can’t see it:  and almost equally worrying that the psychologists, on whose advice on behaviour management and assessment parole boards tend to rely, can’t see it, either.

My sole reservation about this otherwise admirable and comprehensive document is that it offers a number of possible options for reform, including amendments to the IPP legislation further to reduce the number of offences for which IPPs can be awarded.  Even though the recommended first option is outright abolition, the offer of a less drastic remedy by further amending the legislation (which has already been amended in the same direction without producing any very significant improvements) and a third, even weaker, option of simply allocating more resources to the management of IPP prisoners and the provision of more behaviour management courses for them, seems to me to weaken the force of the case for abolition.  The system is inherently unjust.  No amount of tinkering with it can make it fair.  Better management of it wouldn’t make it perceptibly less unfair — and it would cost far more money than is likely to be available in the present climate.  Conversely, the report calculates — almost in an aside — that the cost to the taxpayer of keeping thousands of IPP prisoners in jail for years after they have served the punitive part of their sentences and are still incarcerated in preventive detention is probably of the order of “around £100 million” so far — and this grotesque cost is likely to go on rising if nothing drastic is done to stop the monster in its tracks.  Now is the time to slay it.  Please urge your MP now to tell the Justice Secretary that the IPP has had its day.

Update (25 July 2010):  It has been reported that No. 10 vetoed a passage in Crispin Blunt’s ‘Churchill’ speech of 22 July in which he had planned to say something to the effect that he expected to abolish IPPs.  In fact the videotape of the speech at http://www.justice.gov.uk/news/sp220710a.htm proves that he delivered the section of his speech on IPPs almost exactly as in the text on that web page.  I think this is as promising as we can expect, given that he could not have been expected to make a firm decision on the matter in advance of the sentencing review.  And at least we have the certainty now that IPPs will be critically scrutinised as part of the sentencing review, which is to report in the autumn.  So far, so reasonably good.


14 Responses

  1. Bob says:

    I shall limit this input to commenting on p.30 of the report, i.e: ‘ Extracts from letters to the PRT from IPP prisoners’, in which correspondents 1 and 2 expose some of the  gross injustice and  administrative incompetence in the management of IPPs. I refer to the seeming arbitrariness of some of the decisions made about IPP prisoners and the often cruel delays in delivering those decisions – by people to whom the words ‘beyond tariff’ seem to mean nothing.
    I have recently spoken with two IPP prisoners who could well have been correspondents 1 and 2 ( but weren’t, because they knew nothing of the PRT report).  Both men had pleaded guilty to their sex crimes and had received tariffs of two and four years respectively – the two-year tariff given in September 2007  ( before the 2008 change in the law took 2-year tariffs out of the IPP net), the four-year one in June 2006.  So at the beginning of July 2010 both men were in prison post-tariff .  Why?
    Both had been been put on the ‘core’  (6-month) Sex Offenders Treatment Programme (SOTP) course soon after entering prison and both had completed it ‘successfully’, receiving praise and supportive comments from their course facilitators.  In fact the man with the 2-year tariff was recommended by his facilitators to do the Better Lives Booster (BLB) course – a sort of refresher SOTP –  in the community because, they said, there was no point keeping him in prison. (This is a personable, aware man…with a PhD…who shows a clear understanding of his current situation and past mistakes.) 
    But unfortunately completing SOTP ‘successfully’ means nothing. What counts is the SARN  (Standard Assessment of Risk and Need) report written about the prisoner on his completion of the SOTP course by a  psychologist who has not previously had contact with him – often a young psychology graduate training to be a forensic or clinical psychologist, sometimes from the same prison, sometimes from the interventions team at another prison. Trainees who write SARN reports do so under the supervision of a chartered psychologist (who usually never meets the prisoner).
     Both the prisoners I spoke to had had such a person write their SARN reports, sitting with them for about two hours, they said, and then passing judgement on their future. Both men were loosely complimented on their effort and work on their SOTP courses – and then told, almost casually (they insist)  that ‘further work’ would be necessary…. The man recommended by his facilitators to do BLB in the community, which would have taken him nicely to his tariff expiry date of September 2009, was told that instead he should do the ‘extended SOTP’ programme. This is available only in another prison, takes six months to complete, and has an 18-month waiting-list. So a trainee psychologist spends a few hours with him and dumps two more years on him – in total contradiction to the recommendations of his own facilitators! How can such arbitrariness be permitted under British justice? If ever a case illustrates how prisoners given IPPs with a tariff of two years or less (before July 14th 2008), and who have completed an appropriate Offending Behaviour Programme (OBP) such as SOTP, should be released immediately, this is it.
      But the nature of the SARN report itself, written by a stranger sitting in judgement for a couple of hours or so, isn’t the sole cause of so much distress. It’s the time prisoners are usually kept waiting for them! The man with the four-year tariff was kept waiting a year between finishing his SOTP course (Dec 2007) and getting his SARN report (Dec 2008). A year in limbo waiting to see what the gods would decree next!   He is now beyond his tariff date of June 15th, despite having additionally completed the ‘rolling SOTP’ course – a sort of revision course – between December 2009 and February 2010.
    He describes himself as being ‘nowhere near a Parole Board hearing’, and has settled into a routine job on his wing….. Of his four years in prison ( his tariff), nine months have been spent on his rehabilitation.
    What lunacy is this!

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this, Bob. These are important illustrations of the cruel mismanagement of an inherently unjust system — important because they are vivid and specific real life examples of the perverse way the system works (or doesn’t work) and at the same time confirmation of one of the many gross defects in the system identified by the report. How on earth can such powers over the liberty of strangers be entrusted to trainee and other inexperienced psychologists, supervised by other psychologists who know nothing of the individuals whose fates they are casually deciding? Has no-one in the Ministry of Justice ever noticed or been told about this grotesquerie? Has it never been reported to a previous home secretary or Justice Secretary, and if it has, why has she or he done nothing about it? What’s the matter with our democracy when this kind of monstrous abuse goes on, year after year, without a public outcry, ministerial resignations, urgent remedial action?

    As you know, the new PRT report lays some emphasis on a particular serious weakness of the system, namely that parole boards tend to be excessively and irrationally risk-averse (and the same thing obviously applies to these psychologists), for the obvious reason that if they recommend release and the IPP prisoner then goes on to reoffend — especially if the re-offence comes to the attention of the tabloids — the parole board or psychologist will be excoriated by the media, the justice system and the Minister for guessing wrongly that the risk in releasing the prisoner was acceptable; whereas there is no risk to the parole board or the psychologist in recommending continued incarceration and yet another behaviour management course. Obviously there’s a strong risk of injustice to a genuinely reformed prisoner in recommending against his release, but since there’s no way of knowing what would have happened if the recommendation had been for release, the board or psychologist knows that they will never be criticised for keeping the offender behind bars for another two or three years, whether or not there’s any reason for doing so. Hence the fantastically small percentage of IPP releases.

    I hope we can find a way to give your comment wider exposure, Bob.

  2. ObiterJ says:

    Dear Brian,
    Yet again (for what it is worth) you have my entire support for your campaign against this iniquity.  The PRT report should not and must not be ignored by government.
    I am also highly disturbed at those judges who saw nothing wrong in this system.  However, you have to remember that judges are the “masters of hindsight” but not many of them are truly forward looking people with the ability to analyse just what a proposal might lead to.  It is my view that, at times, undue weight is given to the views of the judges when it comes to proposals to alter the sentenicng regime in the way it was done by the CJA 2003.
    The PRT report should also destroy the idea that everything is OK with IPP since the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 reforms.  Things are far from OK and the central problem of the whole system remains and is more than adequately explained by Bob’s excellent post (above).
    In my experience of the law, it is far from uncommon for psychologists to write reports based on minimal time meeting and observing the subject.  [I have known reports in child care cases which were written on almost cursory examination of a parent but the courts can give considerable weight to such reports].  Like all “experts” they are inherently convinced that their view is invariably right and they are also “risk averse”.
    I fully agree that it is time to be rid of this appalling system.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this valuable support and for your all too persuasive comments on the judges. The psychologists are clearly also a serious problem.

  3. ObiterJ says:

    Dear Brian,
    Of course we should also make the point that it is Parliament which is supposed to scrutinise proposed laws.  In this area they have failed miserably.  The whole CJA 2003 was immense and I would say, without hesitation, that it was just too much for most MPs to be bothered looking at it.  You have to be a lawyer to truly understand considerable chunks of it – e.g. the hearsay provisions and the bad character provisions etc.  The general underlying thrust of the Act was to balance the criminal justice system more in favour of securing convictions.

  4. Jo D. says:

    ObiterJ, reference your comment above, the following, taken from the PRT ‘Indefinitely Maybe’ 2007, their quote following was said by Hilary Benn on 11th Feb 2003.

    “And yet, the only estimate the government gave of the
    effect of IPPs on the prison population was at the standing committee stage of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, from
    the then prisons minister Hilary Benn:
    It will depend on how the courts, having regard to the trigger offences and the thresholds that
    we have set, operate the assessment of
    ”significant risk to members of the public of serious harm”.
    That is quite difficult to know. However, we have assumed in our modelling that over time—
    because it would take time for the effect to develop—there would be an additional 900 in the
    prison population.That is only modelling, of course, and the honest answer is that it is difficult to assess the effect, because it depends on the courts’ interpretation of the provision.

    As there is an additional 6000 and not 900, obviously there wasn’t a lot of scrutiny or planning done. Whether something changed within the Act because if he (H.B.) originally states it would ‘depend on the courts’ interpretation’, when the act was passed it appeared that there was no interpretation involved, the criteria for giving an IPP was (pre 2008) compulsory.

    Also prisoners are kept waiting months, sometimes years for reports for parole hearings, delays in parole hearings, being refused parole to be assessed for courses they’re not eligible to do, lack of co operation from Offender Managers, and yet (as far as I know) there are no standards to be met, no time frames that anyone is bothered about keeping to. The most they can hope for is a judicial review by a solicitor which is costly and time consuming. So extensive and costly delays, for a wide range of reasons, are deemed to be a supposedly ‘acceptable’ part of this sentence.   

  5. ObiterJ says:

    Jo D – thanks for referring to what Benn said.  Quite crafty really wasn’t he!!  “If our estimate is wrong it will be down to the judges”.  The reality remains that there was no detailed assessment of likely numbers.  Also, as you point out, there was little to no interpretation required.  The criteria in the CJA 2003 were clear enough and they had to be mechanistically applied.  The even more serious point is that there seemed to be no realisation among legislators of the serious obstacles that prisoners would face to obtain release once they had completed their tariff.  That, of course, is the major problem at the very heart of this form of sentence.

    Brian writes: Thank you to ObiterJ and Jo D for this usefully revealing exchange. It’s brutally clear that neither ministers nor parliament did their homework before this deeply flawed system was introduced, with the appalling cost in human suffering that it continues to exact. Unfortunately it will require very thick skins for ministers and MPs to undo the wrong in the knowledge that they will be excoriated by the sicker tabloids and the sadistic section of public opinion for being “soft on crime”. It’s deeply unfortunate that the Moat affair, pumped up by the hysterical media and the police into some kind of national emergency, should have come at this time: of course Moat was not on an IPP sentence before his release, and the prison seems to have tried to warn the police or the probation service that Moat posed a threat, but that won’t stop the more unscrupulous right-wing editors and columnists from screaming that abolishing IPPs will release thousands of Moats to roam the streets killing people.

  6. Jo D. says:

    The following is in some way is relevant to your note above.
    It is taken from the foreword of  H.M. Chief Inspector of Probation – Andrew Bridges, Annual Report, published a couple of  days ago.

    In October 2008, the first joint report on IPP by the Prisons and Probation Inspectorates reported in critical language on the influx of prisoners serving these new indefinite sentences, and in March 2010 our second joint report went on to describe the emerging position as “unsustainable”. We reported that in December 2009 only 75 IPP prisoners had been released and stayed out (in total since 2005), while there were around 70 newly sentenced IPP prisoners every month entering prison. Of the 5,788 IPP prisoners in custody, 2,393 had passed their ‘tariff date’, i.e. the period announced by the judge as the due punishment for their offence. In effect, these 2½ thousand prisoners are now being locked up as a form of preventive detention, as was the intended policy of course. So it is worth considering both the costs and the benefits of this policy.
    I’ve calculated the net cost of keeping this group of prisoners locked up, rather than being carefully managed in the community, as being in the region of £80m per year. While you can never be sure of any precise answer to the ‘What If?’ question, my cautious (pessimistic) projection is that if at liberty this group as a whole might commit as many as 40 serious crimes a year altogether (though it could well be as few as 12). This works out at around £2m or more per year
    to use imprisonment’s incapacitation effect to prevent each individual further serious crime.

    A ‘non-financial’ price:
    The costs are not only financial ones. It is also important to
    remember how many people who are not going to commit further
    offences are being locked up ‘unnecessarily’ in order for us to be
    sure that we are locking up the ones who will.
    When we turn back to the subject of the relatively smaller group of prisoners who have committed serious crimes and are now serving indefinite sentences, we are dealing with ‘high seriousness’ people who commit types of offences that are statistically rarer, and we are looking at a whole year instead of just over a fortnight. My cautious projection suggesting that the group of 2½ thousand IPP prisoners who have passed their ‘tariff date’ might commit as many as 40 serious crimes a year means that the proportion of such reoffenders is again in the region of one in 60, though this time over the course of a whole year. This means that we are therefore in effect probably locking up at least 59 ‘high-seriousness’ offenders who don’t need to be locked up, in order to lock up each one who is going to commit a further serious crime some time during a whole year.

    The same question can then be considered the other way round: Is the public prepared to accept the ‘cost’ of having more prisoners managed in the community, in terms of a proportionately small amount of reoffending, in order to achieve the ‘benefit’ of substantial financial savings, and knowing that people are not being expensively locked up for longer than they need to be?
    Trite solutions to this question should be avoided, and grown-up
    choices need to be made instead. Although the authorities can
    predict probabilities by groups, it is impossible to predict certainties by individuals. ‘Risks’ to the public cannot be eliminated, and individual incidents should not necessarily be seen as evidence of the system failing. In this light, policy options need to be considered in a mature way.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Jo. These are very useful comments and calculations by the head of the Probation Service. I notice that his report has been attacked in predictable terms by the neanderthals of the Daily Mail, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, and other similar troglodytes.

  7. http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8833000/8833908.stm

    Even the Chairman of the Parole Board agrees about IPPs!!

    Tell your friends.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I heard this on the Today programme, and thought Sir David Latham was excellent, despite constant unnecessary interruptions by the infinitely tiresome Sarah Montague — who also started the interview with a question that unintentionally revealed a total failure of understanding (“How many of the IPP prisoners in jail have served their sentences and could be released without any risk of reoffending?”, or words to that effect). Throughout the interview Ms Montague seemed to be reflecting the values and attitudes of the Sun newspaper, although I suppose her excuse would be that she was merely putting the questions that a Sun reader would want answers to. Anyway, it was good exposure for the cause. And useful to have the chair of the Parole Board, of all people, condemning excessively risk-averse attitudes in society!

  8. Jo D. says:

    To add weight to the argument I’ve noticed in the Independent on 8th July 2010: ‘Prison Governors Brand Controversial Sentence ‘inhumane’ ‘

    The president of the Prison Governor’s Association states this sentence is unfair and they are being expected to ‘defend the indefensible’, he also calls on ministers to review this sentence as a matter of urgency.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. There’s also a good Guardian report of the comments by the head of the parole board on IPPs — here. Unfortunately despite all the efforts made, no MP bothered to ask a question about IPPs at Justice Ministry oral questions in the house of commons today (20 July), the last one before the parliamentary summer recess. A wasted opportunity!

  9. Patricia O says:

    Thank you again, Brian, for letting us air our opinions on your excellent site. Yes, very disappointing about the MPs. Our MP’s last letter, dated 28 June, said he would be writing to Mr Clarke, highlighting our concerns about IPPs, and that is the last we heard. Other letters we have written to current and previous PMs and Justice Ministers seem to end up with the same civil servant, who now merely sends us a photocopy of her previous response with a compliment slip. Meanwhile, our son is now 19 months past his minimum tariff of 18 months. Like many others, everything was fine until he had a SARN. He had successfully completed offender behaviour courses, before his tariff expired. 7 months on, a female trainee psychologist, half his age, who had never met him before, recommended a course, done in 2 other prisons, with lengthy waiting lists. It has taken our son 14 months to repeatedly argue he does not meet the eligibility criterion, ‘must have offence related thoughts’. The course has finally been removed from his Plan. Our son has now to face more psychological testing, so I bet you this comes up with another unachievable recommendation. His second Parole is listed for next June – by which time he will have served 4 years. (Plus we know the hearing will be highly unlikely to happen on time). This for an 18 months minimum tariff. Meanwhile, our own health is suffering. We are elderly, and just hope we can keep on going for the sake of our son, who will need our support more than ever, WHEN he is finally released. This is so wrong. Can any challenge be made to these psychologists? Parole seems to give their reports such importance. Psychologists should not be given the power to keep people in prison. We have read time and time again all the condemnations of IPPs. When will something be DONE about this mess?

  10. Jo D. says:

    Patricia O. – I do really sympathise with your situation, my friend is over 3 years past his tariff and most of that time has been spent waiting for a parole hearing  just to tell them that after an assessment, he was told he wasn’t eligible to do the course they’d recommended at his first parole hearing – so totally wasted time.

    I agree with Brian’s comment in reply to Bob’s first post above about psychologists, and to add they are often very young with minimum life experience who have an enormous amount of power over someone’s life which they grossly abuse by playing what appears to be ‘cat and mouse’ games of psychological torment.

    If you can get onto an HMP site have a look at PSI 36/2010 introduced recently where it states sentence plans should be ‘achievable and not merely aspirational’, unfortunately IPP’s have had to put up with ‘aspirational’ sentence plans since 2005, and there is no mention of this being redressed.
    Unfortunately prisons, in particular psychologists interpret any sort of prison instructions in which ever way they choose, so it then falls to a solicitor to take it to a judicial review.

    I think when these IPP’s who’ve done a long time past their tariff, gone through all this torture of trying to do everything they’ve been told to do, but being then told they either can’t do it, or if they do, it doesn’t make any difference, eventually get released they will need a lot of extra help because of all the damage this sentence has done to them and their families. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Jo. PSI 36/2020 is indeed interesting and may be worth quoting by any IPP prisoner who isn’t sure the new guidelines are being observed at his prison. I have added the link to your comment, but to make sure, it’s at

  11. Michael Robinson says:

    Guy Opperman MP (Hexham) put down a question for 20th July after we sent the Open Letter but it was balloted out. He has subsequently raised the matter with the Home Secretary who has ‘promised him that these sentences will be reviewed.’

    Brian writes: Thanks for this good news. Fortunately Crispin Blunt has now confirmed publicly that he regards IPPs as flawed and that they will be reviewed, although rather omiunously No 10 Downing Street is reported to have intervened to stop him saying that IPPs might be abolished altogether. See http://www.justice.gov.uk/news/sp220710a.htm.

  12. Patricia O says:

    Thank you Brian, Michael and Jo D.  Have downloaded PSI 36/2010, and found it extremely helpful.  Will let our son know.

  13. Reported in the Mirror on 10th August:

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Lorna. This strikingly misleading and superficial report, in a broadly sympathetic liberal newspaper, is an ominous foretaste of the scaremongering know-nothing treatment we may expect from the really reactionary tabloids and the Murdoch press if ever Ken Clarke is allowed by his own party and Cabinet colleagues to abolish IPPs. Will Mr Cameron have the backbone to let it happen?

  14. j pleming says:

    I know a young person who was given an IPP at the age of 18 in late 2006 for a minor wounding. He has no family to support him outside prison. He had already served 1 year on remand at sentencing is still in prison now April 2011 although i think the sentencing guide was that he should serve 2 years. I know him because my son was a co-defendant who was found not guilty in the prodeedings. I think the IPP system is cruel in so many ways as the person is in limbo and has no idea how long they will serve. I wish they would scrap this unfair way of sentencing. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. If the Ministry of Justice’s proposals in their recent Green Paper are approved and passed into law following the period of consultation, many fewer IPPs will be awarded and the criterion for release after completion of the tariff will be made much more reasonable, although I see no realistic hope that the system will be scrapped altogether — as it undoubtedly ought to be.