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Indefinite sentences 'the greatest single stain on justice system'

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent
·2 min read

A former supreme court justice has called for urgent action in dealing with prisoners languishing under indefinite sentences, branding the now defunct scheme “the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system”.

Lord Brown, a justice of the supreme court between 2009 and 2012, said the imprisonment for public protection (IPP) regime, under which offenders were handed a minimum term but no maximum term, required “long overdue” reform.

Despite the use of the sentencing power being scrapped in 2012, more than 3,200 prisoners remain locked up under the regime, including those who have been recalled to prison, prompting critics to brand it the “never-ending sentence”.

Writing in a foreword to a report on the impact on those recalled under the IPP regime, Brown said: “I have no hesitation in describing the continuing aftermath of the ill-starred IPP sentencing regime as the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system.”

IPP sentences are attached with an indefinite licence period, meaning released offenders face recall to prison for the rest of their lives. While the number of unreleased prisoners is falling and stands at around 1,895, the number of recalled prisoners is rising.

“Whether detained under their original sentences or recalled, however, they all now, together with their families, exist in a Kafkaesque world of uncertainty, despair and hopelessness, indefinitely detained unless and until they are able to satisfy the inevitably difficult test of persuading the Parole Board that they can safely be (re)released,” Brown said. “Our reputation as a just nation demands that this IPP stain be at last eradicated.”

IPPs were designed to detain indefinitely serious offenders who were perceived to be a risk to the public. The government expected about 900 people to be jailed under IPPs; it peaked at more than 8,000. They were used far more widely than intended and issued to offenders who committed low-level crimes.

The report, written by Dr Kimmett Edgar, Dr Mia Harris and Russell Webster for the Prison Reform Trust, said the indefinite nature of the IPP licence meant it was possible the number of people on IPP sentences in prison could remain the same or even increase for the foreseeable future.

Interviews with individuals who had been recalled to prison under an IPP licence revealed that most had not been convicted of a subsequent offence when they were recalled but had often been recalled for poor behaviour that fell short of illegal activity.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “All of these offenders were considered by an independent judge to pose a high risk to the public and that’s why it falls to the Parole Board to decide whether it is safe for them to be released. The number of IPP prisoners has fallen by two-thirds since 2012.”