I note from the Guardian that it's the turn of the Prison Governor's Association to draw attention to the sorry situation surrounding the 2,500 or so prisoners being held beyond their tariff date on Indeterminate Public Protection sentences. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons and Probation has previously raised the issue, as indeed have penal reform groups.
The IPP sentence was introduced in 2005 and replaced the previous so called 'automatic' life sentence that was triggered for repeat specified serious offences such as rape. However this new sentence has proved somewhat controversial in that when Parliament passed the legislation, it was envisaged that it would only apply to a relatively small group of offenders, not the significant numbers that have been handed down (6,130 at latest count). It should be regarded as a type of life sentence as release is only possible when the Parole Board are satisfied that an individual no longer poses a risk to the community. Although in many cases a relatively low tariff of say 3 or 4 years was imposed, many prisoners have not been able to complete appropriate courses whilst in prison or convince the Parole Board that they are safe to release. Only about 90 individuals have been released back into the community under probation supervised licences.
Apart from the civil liberty aspects of incarcerating ever greater numbers of people for what might end up as life terms for offences other than murder, the various agencies involved are concerned about the effect it is having on the prison system with so many 'lifers'. It also raises the issue of how 'risk averse' the Parole Board is becoming and there are concerns about the way in which the whole process of assessing risk is currently being handled. It will be no surprise to regular readers that I feel OASys features heavily in this and particularly the blind faith members of Parole Board panels seem to put in it. At several Oral Hearings I have been asked by panel members if I've completed an up-to-date OASys as if it is a highly scientific process that will magically produce the answer. In fact it is of course highly subjective and in my experience has massively clouded consideration of risk issues.
I'm afraid that in order to explain we have to delve further into the mysteries of this fiendish invention and the ethos of 'end-to-end offender management'. As part of the theory, in a surreal twist of logic it is the probation officer based possibly 100 miles or more from the prison who is nominally in charge of the offenders management in prison. So the person who knows least about the operation of a prison is expected to chair sentence planning meetings, possibly by video conference call due to travel restrictions. I and many of my colleagues, according to a recent HMI report, refuse simply because the whole thing is bloody daft. Sentence Planning meetings on lifers used to be chaired by Governors and then more recently prison officers.
But more importantly, the OASys is completed by prison staff with 'ownership' only transferred to the probation officer for limited periods for updating or editing. In every case of a lifer, I've had to amend the risk section because the prison has reduced it to 'low'. Common sense says that 'medium' as a minimum is appropriate for somebody in prison for very serious offences, but the prison are using different criteria. The joke at sentence planning meetings is the typical response from prison officers when asked about the inmate, such as 'he keeps a clean and tidy cell and is respectful to staff'. I deliberately paraphrase, but in their eyes that basically makes him low risk. At quasi-judicial Oral Hearings at the prison when the prisoner is legally represented and the probation officer, or 'offender manager' is in attendance, it makes a mockery of the new set-up when the prisoner challenges the change in risk status and demands an explanation.
No wonder the Parole Board has difficulty in assessing risk in any meaningful way nowadays with a reduction in the quality of the information they are getting. Probation Officers are no longer staying in one office or position for long periods and so often don't have the intimate knowledge of lifer cases they once were expected to have. Lifers are invariably moved around the prison system at regular intervals and widespread travel restrictions to prisons means that visits are now extremely difficult. Video conferencing is just no adequate substitute. Can you imagine trying to discuss the details of a murder or other serious offence in this way? How can you build a relationship by video? In these circumstances, how much weight would a Parole Board panel give to an LSP3E Parole Report from a PO perhaps recommending a move to open prison, or release even? The system is becoming a joke.
Until it was cancelled for cost saving reasons, each prisoner applying for Parole used to be interviewed by a member of the Parole Board who produced the so called 'independent' report. In my view this extremely valuable contribution to the process should be re-instated urgently as one way of improving the information available to the Parole Board. We've got ourselves in a real mess over IPP sentences and it's going to be interesting to see what Ken Clarke's response is going to be.