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Is This the End of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) Sentences?

Sarah Sharp

31st October 2022

Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences were introduced by New Labour Home Secretary Lord Blunkett in 2005. These were only to be imposed for 96 of the most serious violent or sexual offences, where offenders were deemed to pose a danger to the public.

In reality however these were given for some relatively minor offences and with their indefinite term problems began to surface. Minimum terms of imprisonment were imposed during which the offender’s risk to the public could be addressed. After this parole boards would review their progress and if their risk was manageable, they would be released. But with the availability of programmes to demonstrate rehabilitative activity being very limited, this meant that prisoners were not able to demonstrate the progress required by the parole board to secure their release at the end of their minimum term. Facing an indefinite term of imprisonment with no likelihood of release, with still limited access to risk reduction programmes or specialist units, this left many of theses prisoners despairing for their future.

Problems with these sentences were seen in the Lockyer Review of 2007 and in 2008 a new sentencing threshold was introduced. In 2010 Prison minister Crispin Blunt stated that he had “inherit[ed] a very serious problem with IPP prisoners”. In 2011 David Cameron stated that the system was “unclear, inconsistent and uncertain”. In 2012 at the ECHR the case of James, Wells and Lee v UK challenged IPP sentences on the basis of these being a violation of Article 5 (protection from unlawful deprivation of liberty). It was seen that these detentions were “arbitrary and therefore unlawful” without offenders having a realistic chance of making rehabilitative progress due to the lack of programmes. They also highlighted that if sentenced with a co-defendant, if they were given a definite term they would also be released far earlier, which seemed unfair.

Even if prisoners serving these sentences did secure a release, they were on licence post-sentence for life, with this only being eligible to be terminated after 10 years. This means that they and their families lived in constant fear of them being recalled to prison for such minor things as missing probation appointments or not living in approved premises, which can be very difficult to secure one does not have a definite release date. If convicted again, prisoners have to be determined by the parole board if they are safe to be released in accordance with the terms of their original IPP sentence. This has led to a situation which the introducer of the scheme Lord Blunkett himself even acknowledged its shortcomings, where there may be more people in prison having been recalled on IPP sentences than serving original IPP sentences. This did nearly occur in 2021 when there were 3000 serving IPP sentences in prison, with 1300 having been recalled.

It is therefore unsurprising that 65 prisoners serving IPP sentences committed suicide whilst in prison, before they were abolished in 2012 by the coalition government. However, before this 8711 IPP sentences were imposed. Despite their abolition the government found that those who had already been sentenced should not have their sentences cancelled as it would not be “right or appropriate retrospectively to alter sentences that were lawfully imposed by the court simply because a policy decision has now been taken to repeal that sentence.” Some people would support this, taking the view that there should be no interference with the judicial independent of sentencing.

Despite them being abolished almost ten years ago problems still remain with the number of prisoner being recalled on these and the number still in prison on these sentences not decreasing at any steady rate. In September 2021 the Justice Committee launched their inquiry into IPP sentences, receiving more written evidence that any previous inquiry. They have called on the government to re-sentence all prisoners currently on IPP sentences as the current system is chaotic and not fit for purpose. Since 2016 only 26% of IPP prisoner shave achieved release. They have called for an expert committee to advise on the logistics of this resentencing exercise as they do acknowledge that this will be a complex administrative task. They also noted that in conducting this exercise the judiciary must be able to make independent decisions, offenders should not be subject to harsher sentence than when they committed the offence and that there must be a balance between the protection of the public and justice for the individual offender. However, it is hoped that now the sentence can be properly dealt with so that there is no longer this legacy of uncertainty.

Discussion points

  • What are your thoughts of IPP sentences?
  • What function of punishment do these sentences seek to perform and are they disproportionate to any aims achieved?
  • Do these sentences achieve justice?
  • Why were these sentences abolished? Do you agree with their abolishment?
  • The abolishment is not retrospective. What does this mean?
  • Could existing IPP Sentences constitute a breach of Human Rights?

Further reading

Sarah Sharp

Sarah is an experienced A-Level and BTEC Law teacher and examiner. Sarah is Subject Lead for Law at tutor2u, leading the team developing online and print resources for A-Level and BTEC Law courses.

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