Thursday, 18 February 2016

Britain's Injustice System part 3 - Indeterminate sentences

Britain's political elite place great faith in the European Convention on Human Rights believing that it delivers a fair justice system. What they overlook is that judges making interpretations of law under the Convention have their own agenda to pursue. In this respect they are no different to politicians. However, if an unjust law is passed by politicians it is a comparatively straightforward matter to get it changed if problems arise. If a law is passed at the behest of judges, particularly foreign judges, it is much more difficult to get it removed.

The European Convention on Human Rights did nothing to prevent the introduction of indeterminate sentences by the Blair government in 2005. The principle of indeterminate sentences is not new, we have for a long time had mandatory life sentences for murder, and they can similarly be handed down for other crimes of a most serious nature. Only a relatively small proportion of prisoners given a life sentence are never released, most are released on licence after a lengthy prison term. If they breach the conditions of the licence they can return to jail.

However, the introduction by the Blair government of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences were a new innovation which represented a serious attack on the rights of the citizen. An IPP could be issued when it was believed that an individual represents a significant risk of serious harm and has committed a 'serious specified offence' described in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Those prisoners handed an IPP sentence would also be given a minimum tariff by the judge, that is a period of time before they could be considered for release by a parole board. The intention was that IPP sentences could only be handed down in cases were the judge was minded to grant a minimum four year sentence, which meant that the minimum IPP tariff would be two years to reflect the practice that prisoners are normally released on licence after serving half their sentence.

It used to be a principle of British justice that once prisoners had served their sentence the slate would be wiped clean and they could resume their life outside prison without further interference by the judiciary. This principle has been seriously eroded in recent years and IPP sentences are an example of how this can occur. In practice the vast majority of IPP prisoners have remained in prison long after their tariff expired. Reasons for this can include the unavailability of rehabilitation courses (for which their might be a lengthy waiting list), or the refusal of parole boards to agree to a release. Even if they are released there will still be the threat of a return to prison hanging over them indefinitely should they breach the conditions of their licence.

In practice many more prisoners received IPP sentences than was expected when the legislation was introduced, and some prisoners received an IPP sentence when their tariff was for a short a time as a few months. As a result of the greater than expected numbers there were far more IPP prisoners than there were places on rehabilitation courses, for which attendance was a necessary precondition before release could be considered. So the numbers of IPP prisoners continued to increase, with little hope of release for the majority, despite having served the time set out in their tariff.

Former coalition justice secretary Kenneth Clarke described IPP sentences as a 'stain on the British justice system'. As a result of growing criticism IPP sentences were abolished in late 2012 but shamefully this did not apply retrospectively. At the end of June 2015 there were still 4600 IPP prisoners in jail with only limited expectations of release, all of them adding to prison overcrowding and each one an indictment of our justice system.

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