Here’s a policy idea that has already been put in place in Britain: Indefinite Sentences for Public Protection, or IPP sentences for short. IPP sentences were introduced in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act. IPP sentences can now be given out by any judge in Britain to anyone found guilty of a violent or sexual offences of a reasonably serious nature, if there is strong evidence that that offender poses a serious threat to public safety. There is a long list that specifies the crimes for which IPP sentences can be given – but a reasonably fair rule of thumb would be that if the minimum sentence if the offence is violent or sexual, the headline sentence is more than two years and the offender is judged dangerous, then an IPP sentence can be given.* When the judge hands down the sentence, she will announce a headline sentence term (e.g. 4 years and 6 months), along with the IPP provision. Until 2008, IPP sentences could be applied to shorter sentences – with some sources suggest that around a third of IPP sentences before 2007 were given alongside headline offences meriting less than two years. The sentences can be given to minors as well as adults. This case, in which 10 and 11 year old brothers tortured and nearly killed two young boys, is an example – one that I’ve been struggling to write about due to its gruesomeness in my pending book (if pending isn’t too optimistic a phrase!).
There’s always been a recognition in UK law that for the most serious crime (murder), citizens can be permanently denied their rights of liberty, if they continue to present a risk to society. And parole decisions have always been based partly on assessments of a prisoner’s dangerousness. But IPP sentences still represent a radical departure in criminal justice. For, along with risk-based approaches, there has always been a strong legal principle in Britain that citizens are punished for their past actions, and not on the basis of an assessment of risk that will always be open to errors of judgement. In other words, if you’ve done your crime and done you’re time, you’re out – unless you are really psychologically damaged, in which case you can be detained (though in hospital not prison) under the Mental Health Act.
The impact of IPP sentences in Britain has been dramatic. Around six thousand people of the 85,000 or so in prison in England and Wales are now serving IPP sentences. And insiders estimate that due to the fact many are held for a very long time indeed, the new sentence will help to ensure that the country’s seemingly interminable rise in prison numbers continues. Indeed, in conversation I’ve been told that IPP sentences have already 2,000 people to daily prison population and that number is rising rapidly. This is expensive – probably costing well over £80 million per year – so far!**
The impact of holding these particularly dangerous offenders on crime is a harder to work out, however. I think it would be foolish in the extreme to say that keeping the most dangerous behind bars doesn’t reduce crime – and I’m someone who generally thinks that tough prison terms aren’t a very cost-effective way tackling criminality. But the question is how effective is the system at estimating of individuals’ dangerousness. And are the unquantified benefits in terms of crime reduction justifiable in face of a) the moral issues (punishing people before they’ve acted) or b) the financial cost (which takes cash away from other areas of public service spending)?
I think not – in fact, I think they’re pretty scandalous – but don’t let that sway you. You decide and feel free to comment too…. Incidentally, Ken Clarke’s Green Paper includes a proposal to restrict the use of these sentences to the most serious crimes. Let’s see if he can get this through his party’s hardliners and the right-wing press.
*With thanks to Mark Telford of Southampton University for pointing out that since the 2008 CJIA Act, IPP sentences can no longer be passed for sentences of less than two years.
** This estimate is based on average costs of £40,000 per prison place per year, which is a conservative estimate as many of these prisoners would be held in more expensive (£60k+ p.a.) and secure Category A prisons