Monday 31 October 2011

A Fine Mess and No Mistake

It came as no great surprise when Ken Clarke announced last week the government's intention to abolish the hugely damaging and ill-thought out IPP sentence introduced by Tony Blair. It was all part of that government's 'tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime' agenda designed to curry favour with the voters and has had the result of stuffing our prisons with upwards of an additional 7,000 or so extra 'lifers.'

Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences are indeterminate sentences and so are indeed akin to a life sentence because release only comes when someone is deemed safe to release by the Parole Board. Sadly however, that's where the similarity ends. Unlike most other kinds of life sentence, the typical 'tariff' or earliest date before release will be considered is normally very short and averages about 3 years. This makes IPP prisoners a very unusual and difficult group for the system to deal with. It could be said they are neither fish nor fowl - not 'proper' lifers, which the prison service is well-geared up to deal with - but actually medium to short term prisoners by any other name. But we are now several years down the line since their introduction and vast numbers of IPP prisoners are languishing in prison well over their tariff dates. 

Even before the last government lost the election, concern was growing in relation to the huge and growing problem IPP was becoming. Never intended to be used in that many instances, it has nevertheless proved hugely popular with Judges who add to the total on a very regular basis. Unfortunately very little thought was ever given as to how this group would be dealt with within the prison system.

In order to assist the Parole Board in reaching a conclusion regarding risk, various accredited courses have to be undertaken that are designed to address issues such as violence, sexual offending, thinking skills, drugs and alcohol. These courses do not run in all prisons and places are somewhat limited. Added to this is the fact that the Parole Board has become increasingly risk-averse in recent years, no doubt partly in response to negative public opinion and political pressure as a result of some notorious cases. Unhappily this has coincided with cultural and professional changes within the Probation Service, who are the people charged with advising the Parole Board regarding release. I have written on many occasions regarding the unhelpful effect of OASys in only highlighting negative aspects of an offenders situation, thus leading typically to over-cautious or negative recommendations for release.

All this of course has proved the perfect recipe for a massive and growing problem. One might say another fine mess the politicians have got us into. And to be honest it's not exactly clear how Ken Clarke intends to get us out of it with his mix of further 'mandatory' life sentences and determinate sentences. It seems some IPP sentences will be converted to life sentences, but the criteria and rationale has yet to be spelt out.

Meanwhile, here we have an experienced commentator, Mr Raymond Peytors of TheOpinionSite.Org who clearly has a problem with probation:-

 "It looks now as if Mr. Clarke has been forced to abandon the idea of a formalised test and means that probation officers will be allowed to go on getting things hopelessly wrong and to continue to introduce their own bias and prejudice into release procedures."

"Mr. Clarke has also not made it clear as to who will determine whether or not an IPP prisoner has his sentence converted to a determinate sentence or, if the case is serious enough, a mandatory life sentence. One may presume that this procedure would be carried out by the Parole Board, no doubt with all possible interference from the Probation Service who are already fearful that their overbearing and unjust influence over release decisions may be under attack."

"We can expect too a howl of anguish from all those involved with any form of public protection and whose jobs and considerable income rely on maintaining the myth that everyone convicted of certain types of offences must be “dangerous” and incapable of change."

I'm not sure it's worth dignifying such comments with a response, but merely leave readers to form their own opinion.



  1. You state that you will leave readers to form their own opinion of the comments by Mr Peytor on the Parole Board and Probation Service. I for one would entirely agree with his comments given that my son has now been in prison for more than three years with a minimum term of 8 months. This is largely due to his current probation officer - who he has never met - writing reports for the Parole Board based on those written by his predecessor around five years ago and before my son had attended any programmes. The words lazy and incompetent come to mind. But who cares, what's another 18 months till his next Parole Hearing.

  2. It would not be a good idea to discuss specific cases in any detail, but certainly writing a report never having met someone - just reciting old material for a Parole Hearing - is not professional in my view and virtually worthless. There may well be grounds for a complaint, or at least explanation and possible change of officer.
    Thanks for commenting.


  3. Yes - sounds like grounds for a complaint if correct, especially as the current guidance on home probation officer parole reports clearly says that the report should be informed by an interview (face-to-face in the jail OR by the dreaded videolink) and only by a face-to-face if release is being proposed. If your son's been in three years plus and the reports are based on five year old material is the author also using information from a previous sentence?
    And as for Mr Clarkes two strikes proposal to replace IPPs - didn't we have this in the Nineties until they were replaced by - wait for it - IPPs?