I read in this morning's Times that Ken Clarke is to abolish imprisonment for the public protection (IPP sentences), which are indeterminate prison sentences - in other words they are a life sentence as an offender must prove that he is safe to be released before he gets out of goal, can pass go and collect £200.
IPP sentences have done an awful lot to overwhelm the Prison Service and Parole Board, and I expect the Probation Service too. They have, at least, created some much needed work for lawyers and for that I think we must all applaud them (IPPs not lawyers, although if you’re feeling generous…). Despite the obvious advantages to me and my colleagues, many lawyers have this odd notion that locking people up and throwing away the key isn't the nicest way to treat people. The people who receive IPP sentences are often not the most serious criminals... if they were then they would have been sentenced to a good old fashioned life sentence, which is a requirement of the Act of Parliament that created IPPs. I have one client who received an IPP for robbing a man of £10, the force was pushing the victim’s wheelchair a few feet up the road and the theft was taking the £10 note from the man’s shirt pocket.
There are undoubtedly some people for whom an IPP is the right sentence in theory because those people will continue to commit crimes and there is a risk that they will hurt or kill somebody in future. In theory the IPP allows a person to be held until such time as they have undertaken work and/or treatment that addresses the causes of their criminal behaviour.
The reality of an IPP though is that if you get one then you’ll be given a minimum term that must be served and you can pretty much double that before you have any hope of release.
The problem with IPPs to my mind is not the sentences themselves - mostly I can see the reasoning behind the judge’s decision to rule that the offender is dangerous, which triggers the imposition of the IPP - no the real problem, at the point that the Government and some commentators have missed, is that when the Government brought in the IPPs they failed to invest at all in improving the Parole Board so that it had a hope in Hell of keeping up with the huge upsurge in demand for hearings. They also failed to invest in providing sufficient courses to actually allow prisoners to address the factors that have been said to be behind their criminal behaviour. At the moment, if you have a 2-year minimum tariff and need to undertake the enhanced thinking skills course, some drug/drink rehab and the anger management course (“Think First”, I think it’s called) then you will only be able to do so if you are lucky enough to end up in a prison that offers all three courses! If not you will have to make applications to be moved, which takes time and is a very difficult thing to do for somebody who struggles to focus their thoughts and who cannot piece together even a simple strategy for achieving a goal – the clue that they can’t do this is that they have to do the enhanced thinking skills and anger management courses. There is a very good chance that by the time your minimum term ends that you will not have completed one or all of the required courses, which will result in an almost automatic refusal of parole. Not that it matters much though, because the Parole Board is so over worked that it’s taking at least a year to have a case listed, which means if you get a 3-year minimum term it’ll be four-years before you get before the Parole Board.
Ken’s plan seems to be to appease the silly old sods - sorry I mean back bench Tory MPs and their grass root support – by “introducing” longer determinate sentences. This is also silly.
If you are a very naughty boy (or girl) then a nice friendly judge will tell you that you have to go to prison for, say, 6-years. However, because you had the good sense to instruct me and I told you to ‘fess up you naughty boy, I have managed to secure you a one-third discount from your sentence (although I have to admit that another lawyer could also achieve this result as His Judgelyness is required to discount your sentence in 99.99% of guilty plea cases, I like to think I do it with more style… which is important). Anyway, because of my excellent work you’re now down to 4-years. Well hang on a minute DB I hear you cry, I don’t want to be banged up for the next 4-years. Don’t worry, because it was only His Judgeship who heard the facts and passed sentence and nobody listens to old Judgy. So, as if by magic (actually it’s by Act of Parliament, but that sounded dull) your four-years automatically becomes 2-years before you’ve even left the building. Now, my work is done for the day. But, don’t worry because if you turn over a new leaf and behave yourself inside then you might just be eligible for early release on tag.
Has anybody spotted the clever way that the Government could not increase sentences and yet achieve the same result yet? You could even have a reward system of earlier release for good behaviour while inside – with the necessary Parole Board investment of course. Of course, there’s a very good reason why my idea won’t work and that’s because before a newspaper can explain it they have to first explain the current situation. That’s going to make very dull copy and will not sell papers, so they won’t report it. This means that Ken doesn’t get his column inches, so gets a telling off from “Call me” Dave. Because of this the Tory membership will simply see a Government letting people off of IPP sentences and not keeping them locked up. The lefty papers will take up this mantle and accuse Ken, Dave and the rest of being soft on crime – probably because of the evil Liberal influence – and so they risk losing the next election. It’s far easier therefore to just do something that requires no explanation in the newspapers beyond “lock ‘em up”.
If Ken or Dave or anybody else would like to hire me as a (slightly angry) consultant to help them formulate policy then I am available at very reasonable rates.