A perversion of the law: Imprisonment for Public Protection

Imagine a situation in which a judge could tack an arbitrary ‘tariff’ onto the sentence of an offender on the grounds that a normal sentence would be insufficient to protect the public from the offender’s criminality. If that sounds like a good idea, the door is over there. If that sounds like a horrific idea, you can probably imagine the expression on my face when I heard about Imprisonment for Public Protection, a British policy allowing judges to do just that between 2005 and 2012, after the High Court realised that this was a tremendous human rights injustice and Parliament abolished the practice.

All well and good, you say — a brief blip of civil rights infringement under Labour, since resolved. Hopefully everyone learned their lesson and we can move on with other aspects of criminal justice reform. Except that…that’s not quite how it worked out. Yes, judges can no longer add IPP to a sentence, but what happens to the prisoners who were already in the system with these ludicrous ‘tariffs,’ like James Ward, who has served nearly 10 years on a 10 month IPP? See, the thing is, these prisoners still have to appeal to a parole board, and the system is clogged and complicated, and, hey presto, some people aren’t able to access the parole hearings they need to get out of prison.

Those who manage to get the support of a parole board are often ordered to take courses to prepare them for life on the outside, such as those intended for drug offenders. Yet, many prisons don’t offer them, or don’t have sufficient room for all prospective parolees, so people cool their heels for weeks, months, and years — and judges insist that people can’t just be released, because they might reoffend. (This, after all, was the whole point of IPP — the barbaric practice was justified on the grounds that it provided better public safety by keeping people in prison beyond the length of a regular sentence if they were deemed a threat to the public.)

This has real consequences. Since 2012, IPP prisoners have steadily been released, but several thousand are still stuck in prison, and not all of them have a clear way out. Troublingly, many of those individuals are mentally ill — some have been deemed a threat because of their mental illness, while others are caught in the intersection of undertreated mental illness and interactions with the criminal justice system. Prison is not a good place for anyone, but especially mentally ill people, with mental health services in prison being rather dodgy. So dodgy, in fact, that some prisoners trapped on IPP have committed suicide.

I wouldn’t have found out about IPP if I hadn’t happened to haphazardly click an article on the BBC. Being in the US and focused on criminal justice reform here, I’m obviously not well-acquainted with issues in Britain, but the finding made me wonder how many members of the public are aware of IPP, and of those, how many know that people are still serving out these indeterminate sentences in a weird half world. It’s effectively a life sentence until someone decides that it’s not, and prisoners have to be extremely persistent about accessing the hearings and courses they need to get out of prison. These are the kinds of issues that people should be up in arms about, as it is unjust to imprison people in the first place, and the thought of a system that allows people to remain imprisoned indefinitely is chilling.

The government made the right move when it realised that this experiment was a complete mess and should be abandoned, but it didn’t support that move with a framework to fast track prisoner releases. If anything, there was dithering about how abolishing the practice would result in a flood of ‘dangerous people’ hitting the streets. Thus, appeals are moving through at an unconscionably slow rate, and for mentally ill prisoners, the confusion and stress is brutal. People with complex mental health conditions who are frustrated and panicky are also more likely to act out, as has been the case with Ward, who has committed arson multiple times out of frustration and stress.

Notions surrounding ‘dangerousness’ and the idea that we can incarcerate people simply because they might commit future crimes sounds dangerously like something out of a dystopian novel. If we’re concerned about recidivism, we should consider ways to actually address the issue, such as providing people with social supports like mental health services, like benefits to get back on their feet, like mentoring and job training and other opportunities, like counseling for anger management or abusive behaviour. Incarcerating people doesn’t resolve the underlying problems that make people commit crimes, and if anything, they can exacerbate them.

We can’t just lock people up until we have a criminal-free society, and then keep those people in prison, because that’s not how this works. It’s unjust, and it just won’t work. Britons trapped under IPPs have been waiting long enough, and it’s time to let them out so they can  get on with their lives. Thanks to their unconscionably long time in prison, the state will also need to invest heavily in rehabilitation and support to help them establish themselves in the outside world after a decade or more in prison for relatively minor crimes — like stealing a mobile phone — because the world moves quickly, and dropping people back into it with no support is a very bad idea. Instead of lowering crime, IPP really just compounded the social problems that create recidivism, and the government is paying a high price for the short-lived and abominable policy.

Image: Prison, Matthias Müller, Flickr