End indeterminate sentences: please act urgently now (with update 14 Oct 2011)

Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), which keep thousands of people indefinitely in prison long after they have been punished for their offence, inflict needless misery and injustice on IPP prisoners and their families.  They urgently need to be replaced by a fairer system of sentencing.  The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has promised to do just that by an amendment to be tabled soon to a Bill that is now before Parliament.  There’s a danger that Ken Clarke’s unpopularity with the right wing of the Conservative party and the more rabid of the tabloids, and right-wing distrust of his enlightened proposals for penal reform generally, may frighten No. 10 Downing Street, the Home Secretary, the Labour opposition and even the LibDem members of the coalition government into opposing the replacement of IPPs, forcing Ken Clarke either to abandon it or to water it down in a way that could make it virtually meaningless.

So now is the moment for all liberal-minded people who recognise the indefensible injustice of IPPs to take urgent action to stiffen the government’s support for its own policy, and to encourage MPs to resist the inevitable clamour from the primitives on the Tory back benches and in the tabloids.  Please spare five or ten minutes to email or write a letter to your MP, especially if he or she is a LIbDem.  Here is a suggested form of words that you could either copy-and-paste into an email or letter, or else re-write in your own words:

IPPs: Suggested text of email or letter to your MP and other MPs

I am writing to you as my Member of Parliament to appeal for your support in Parliament for the earliest possible replacement of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), as envisaged by the Justice Secretary, the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke QC MP.  There are well over six thousand people with IPPs locked up indefinitely in our badly overcrowded prisons who have no idea when, if ever, they can hope to be released. Of these, well over 3,500 have already served their ‘tariffs’ (the punishment part of their sentences), and their numbers are growing.  They remain incarcerated not as punishment for any offence they have committed but because the Parole Boards can’t be satisfied that if released they won’t reoffend, which is obviously impossible for a prisoner to prove.  Only a minuscule proportion of the thousands of offenders given IPP sentences have ever been released, even when the original offence may have been relatively minor.

This is a form of preventive detention such as we have never before seen in Britain in peace-time and rarely even in wartime.  It contributes significantly to over-crowding in our prisons and causes resentment of its obvious injustice which makes rehabilitation far more difficult.  The uncertainty over any hope of ever being released causes misery amounting almost to torture for the wives, husbands, partners, parents and children of those who have been subjected to this nightmarish punishment.  Replacing it with fairer determinate sentences would help to relieve prison over-crowding, greatly reduce the agonising uncertainties that inflict such misery and injustice on IPP prisoners and their families, save public money, reduce reoffending, and remove an ugly blot on our system of justice.

I would be grateful if you would pass this message to the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, for his comments, in the hope that he will take urgent action in accordance with his undertaking to include provision for the replacement of IPPs by determinate sentences in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which is now going through Parliament.


You can get the name and email and postal addresses of your MP by visiting http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mps/ or http://www.writetothem.com/, or very often by Googling the MP’s name.  Please remember to include your name and address so that your MP can see that you are one of his or her constituents.  Even if you have written to your MP in the past about this, please write again now, perhaps referring to your earlier message and any reply that you received then.

To make your appeal even more effective, please send a copy of it for information to The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP – Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Deputy Prime Minister, Lord President of the Council and MP for Sheffield Hallam, email address:  leader@libdems.org.uk, or by post to The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, 4 Cowley Street, London SW1P 3NB.  In copying your message to Nick Clegg, please urge him to treat support for Kenneth Clarke’s proposal to replace IPPs as a non-negotiable condition for the LibDems remaining in the coalition government:  if the LibDems were to go along with a veto of this essential reform, they would lose all credibility as upholders of liberal principles.

You could also usefully copy your email or letter to the Labour Opposition’s shadow Justice Secretary, The Rt Hon Sadiq Khan MP, email address: sadiqkhanmp@parliament.uk, or by post to The Rt Hon Sadiq Khan MP, House of Commons, Westminster,  London SW1A 0AA. Alternatively email The Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP, milibande@parliament.uk, or write to The Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Opposition, House of Commons, Westminster,  London SW1A 0AA. The Labour leadership has inexplicably been very lukewarm about Kenneth Clarke’s penal reform proposals, but you could point out to Ed Miliband or Sadiq Khan that there can be no possible justification for Labour not to support the replacement of IPPs against the likely opposition of illiberal right-wing elements with which Labour has nothing whatever in common.

If you have any doubts about the shocking injustice of indeterminate sentencess, please read the section on IPPs in an article by the barrister Philip Rule in the September issue of Inside Time, or any of the posts on the subject on this blog, such as here and here (including the comments appended to them, and my responses to the comments). There is also much useful information on the Facebook page of the Emmersons Solicitors’ campaign against IPPs, here.  (In response to recent comments on this blog I  suggested that it was a bad time to revive the campaign against IPPs at a time when Ken Clarke was embroiled in a controversy over the Human Rights Act and Theresa May’s cat, with the prime minister apparently backing Mrs May.  But the situation has changed completely in the last three or four days and it is absolutely essential to pile on the pressure now for IPPs to be replaced.)

Any day now the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is expected to table an amendment to the Bill to include the replacement of IPPs along with his other sentencing reform proposals.  Here is an opportunity, not likely to be repeated, to do something concrete to influence events and to help to remove a monstrous blot on our criminal justice system.  Please take the time to act now, while there’s still time.

Update (14 Oct 2011): An MP who received a constituent’s letter based on the text suggested in my post (https://barder.com/3331) has replied rejecting two of its criticisms of IPPs as “false” (while accepting that there are other, legitimate, grounds for criticising IPPs such as failing to make available courses in prison whose completion is required before parole boards will consider release).

The MP’s first point of disagreement is that “The principle of detention until and unless the Parole Board is satisfied as to risk is not new and underpins the life tariff scheme that was introduced at the time of the abolition of the death penalty.” But it is no part of the case against IPPs that its tariff system is ‘new’, and its use with prisoners serving life sentences in no way justifies applying it to those who have by definition been sentenced for much less serious offences than those attracting a life sentence.  A life sentence is basically what it says: society’s judgement that the offence — such as murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence — is so grave that he who commits it must be imprisoned for the rest of his life.  In practice there may be varying numbers and kinds of extenuating circumstances surrounding each individual murder, and varying grounds for thinking the murderer likely or unlikely to commit another murder, and this is reflected in the tariff system which allows the offender, subject to certain conditions, to be released after a set number of years, although always subject to being recalled to prison if he breaches the terms of his release.  So for a lifer conditional release from prison before death is a privilege and an act of conditional clemency, not a right:  imprisonment for life remains the essence of the sentence.  (Whether it is right for parliament to force judges to impose a life sentence for every single murder, regardless of individual circumstances, is a completely different issue, unrelated to IPPs.)

IPP sentences are completely different.  The tariff set for an IPP represents the punishment element of the sentence.  Once the tariff (whose length reflects the degree of gravity of the original offence) has been served, the offender has been duly punished and has paid his debt to society.  The unique feature of the IPP is that even after having undergone his punishment, the IPP prisoner is still kept in prison, no longer as a punishment but because society is afraid that if released he might reoffend, and accordingly sets a series of quite unrealistic tests that have to be passed before the prisoner may be released.  He is no longer in prison as a punishment but purely in preventive detention.  What’s worse, the onus is on the prisoner to satisfy the parole board that if released, he won’t reoffend:  the parole board will automatically reject an application for release, even if there are no specific grounds for supposing that the prisoner will reoffend, unless the prisoner can satisfy the board that he won’t reoffend, which is an inherently impossible demand.  From the parole board’s point of view, agreeing to release an IPP prisoner is risky:  if they get it wrong, and the prisoner does reoffend after release, they will be blamed for their poor judgement;  whereas if they refuse to agree to his release, they can never be blamed, because no-one can ever know whether or not the prisoner would have reoffended if he had been released.  Hence the abnormally small number of IPP prisoners who have ever been released.  The presumption of innocence, even innocence of hypothetical future offences not yet committed, is denied to the IPP prisoner.  This is rank injustice, straight out of Alice in Wonderland, or Kafka, and it’s not in any way comparable with the tariff system for those serving life sentences.

The MP’s other criticism is to deny the assertion in the post’s draft letter that in some cases of IPPs “the original offence may have been relatively minor“. There’s one sure way to measure the seriousness of the offences that have attracted IPP sentences: namely, the length of the tariff.  The shorter the tariff, the less serious the offence in the eyes of the judge. According to Ministry of Justice figures, in March this year there were 1,550 IPP prisoners with tariffs of less than 2 years, and 3,200 equal to 4 years or less.  Only 50 — five zero — had tariffs of 10 years or more.  The average tariff length for IPPs imposed before the minimum tariff for an IPP was made longer (to stop IPPs being awarded for really trivial offences) was three years, and even after the change it was only four years.  Before the change in the law, people were being given IPPs with tariffs of just a few months, and nearly all of these are still in prison, in some cases three or more years after the end of their tariffs. As mentioned in my post, last March there were no fewer than 3,500 IPP prisoners who had served out their tariffs, having undergone their punishment, but were still in prison.  In the face of these figures, it’s impossible to deny that many IPPs are being awarded for “relatively minor” offences or to assert that IPPs are given only for really serious crimes.

As the MP’s reply acknowledges, the failure of the prison system to provide all IPP prisoners with rehabilitation courses whose completion parole boards demand as a condition for even considering an application for release is indeed one of the indictments of the whole IPP régime.  But it is by no means the most serious.  The whole thing is a denial of the most basic principles of justice.  It is intellectually and morally untenable.  It should go.

PS (24 Oct 2011): I have put some further relevant extracts from recent House of Commons notes and papers on my website: see http://bit.ly/nI572h.


9 Responses

  1. rita lister says:

    hi regarding ipp sentence reform i have copied your letter and am forwarding it to neccessary mps tomorrow

    Brian writes: Thank you, Rita.

  2. Denise and Alan Mumford says:

    We are scandalised by the injustice of Indeterminate sentences, and the scandal of keeping so many prisoners behind bars with no clarity about their date of release. It is particularly senseless at a time of maximum overcrowding in prisons. We hope the Justice Secretary, who has, quite properly, expressed concern about the rising numbers in prisons, will act on the issue of IPPs urgently.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. Thank you, Denise and Alan. I hope you will find time to write — perhaps in identical terms to your comment above, rather than on the lines suggested in my blog post? — to your MP, asking him to pass your letter to the Justice Secretary for his comments, even if you have already done so in the past.

  3. Timothy Weakley says:

    I’ve e-mailed my MP (Dundee West) with a lightly-abbreviated version of your suggested letter.  I agree with your post.  The IPP system as it operates at present is indefensible and is the most blatant form of judicial torture in the UK since the Cat and Mouse Act (not an original simile, but I can’t remember who said it first – you, perhaps?).  One particularly nasty feature (if what I have read is correct – again, I can’t recall the source) is that prisoners who know themselves to have been wrongly convicted will not be eligible for review and rehabilitatory treatment until they admit their guilt.  I am reminded of that old military crime, the substance of informal courts-martial in the bad old days: “Whereas, knowing himself to be a four-letter man, he did fail to report himself as such”.  I don’t doubt that there are prisoners in this category, since the forensic and judicial processes are fallible: consider the number of murder convictions that have been overturned since capital punishment was abolished.

    Brian writesThank you for this.  I believe that the formal position is that refusal to admit guilt is not necessarily a bar to release if release is deemed to be justified on all other grounds, although in practice it tends to be regarded as failure to come to terms with one’s offence, and an absence of remorse, and therefore an indicator of a likely re-offender who had better be kept behind bars.  Obviously prison authorities and parole boards are bound to proceed on the assumption that everyone found guilty by a court is indeed guilty, but as you rightly say, there must be innocent people in jail who have been wrongly convicted or whose convictions were unsafe, and the dilemma they face must be agonising.

  4. Rob Storey says:

    Meena and I have written to Justine Greening.
    In the hope of inviting an exchange on the issue, we also reminded her that when she was a very new MP, our son, Ben, (though opposite pole of the political spectrum) did a work experience with her and had later contact too.
    And we congratulated her on her unsurprising promotion.
    We have forwarded your comments and links to others.
    Rob and Meena

    Brian writes: Many thanks to you both for this handsome response. I hope that many others will follow your example! I shall be interested to know what the formidable Ms Greening will say in reply to your message about IPPs, if she replies at all. Of course as she is now a Cabinet minister, she will be bound by the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility if and when Ken Clarke’s IPP reforms come to be debated and voted on in parliament. Presumably the Cabinet, or perhaps just No. 10, will have decided beforehand whether to let him go ahead with his reforms, to make him water them down, or to compel him to abandon them or change them out of recognition, and both Clake and Ms Greening will be obliged to go along with that decision, whatever it is, or else resign over it as a last resort, whatever their private views.

  5. Rita Lister says:

    Hi Brian  just to let you know I’ve sent all the letters to the following MP’s and the prime minister, the one I copied from you they were sent to Nick Clegg  Ed Milliband and Sadiq Khan Hope to get some response  will keep you posted.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much, Rita. You set an excellent example! I don’t know whether it will all come out right in the end, but whatever happens the effort is definitely worth-while. At least we’ll know we have done everything possible to end this vile system.


    Come on people get your family also to write this to their MP .template letter and there is another version on our discussions page. Let’s keep the pressure growing, one last massive effort, get EVERYONE you know ? print off as many copies, hand them out to EVERYONE get them to help our IPP, FAMILYS UNITED, post template letter off TODAY

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. If you haven’t yet written to your MP and the others mentioned in my blog post up at the top of this page, please do so today. Use the template, or write in your own words, and if you have a relative or friend who has had an IPP, please describe their experience in your letter.

  7. Brian says:

    Please sign this petition for the end of IPPs.
    This is a useful petition since it covers the plight of existing IPP prisoners as well as the inherent injustice of IPPs and the need to ‘remove’ them. It’s not quite right about the courses (they are not ‘pre-set… by the courts’) but the sense is clear and absolutely correct. The petition needs many more signatures if it’s to make an impact. Please sign it at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/4361.

    Ban and remove IPP Sentencing for prisoners – e-petitions epetitions.direct.gov.uk
    “IPP is inhumane with no time limit to a sentence and no availability to carry out the pre-set courses set by courts, as personnel and cost issues affect all prisons in this country. So we are requesting the government to remove and/or re-sentence any current or former prisoners carrying an IPP on their sentence.”

    If you have a blog, a Facebook page or a Twitter account, or all three, please consider posting an invitation to sign the petition (with a link to it — http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/4361)

  8. Brian says:

    “KL”:  My reply to your message about your son has been returned as undeliverable.  Here is what it said:
    Sadly, your son’s frustrating experience doesn’t seem to be unique or even unusual, and I don’t have the expertise to advise you on what you or he can usefully do, apart from suggesting that he (and you) could get in touch with the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at his prison and ask to see one of its members to discuss his case. There is full information about the IMB on its website at http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/imb.htm, where it says:
    “If a prisoner or detainee has an issue that he or she has been unable to resolve through the usual internal channels, he or she can put in a confidential request to see a member of the IMB. Problems might include concerns over lost property, visits from family or friends, special religious or cultural requirements, or even serious allegations such as bullying.” [I have emphasised the requirement to try to “*resolve the issue therough the usual internal channels*” first, which I suppose might mean asking to see the Governor to discuss the problem over having to do the course and why the Parole Board has only now made it a requirement.]
    But I am sending a copy of your message and this reply to a lawyer friend who specialises in IPPs in case she can offer you any advice. If so, I expect she will get in touch with you direct, but only if she has any potentially useful advice for you.
    I’m very sorry not to be able to do any more than this. I do hope a solution can soon be found and that your son will be released before too long.
    [Please send me another message giving me an email address that works!]

  9. Patricia O says:

    I have today received a response from our MP to the letter I wrote last week using your excellent template.  It reads 

    ‘….As you know, the Government is undertaking an urgent review into this issue which is due to be released this autumn.  Although they may not have any further information to pass on to you until this review has been completed, I will be writing to my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to pass on your letter and to make the points you have made to me.’

    Brian writes:  Thank you very much for this.  It’s helpful to know that the Ministry of Justice is receiving evidence of public support for replacing IPPs.