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Independent Commission recommends ending the injustice of IPP – This condemned sentence must now go.

In June 2022, the Independent Commission into the Experiences of Victims and Long-Term Prisoners (ICEVLP) published its report. The inquiry was chaired by Bishop James Jones, who also chaired the inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster, and its aim was to examine sentencing policy and practice for serious crime, through dialogue with prisoners, victims, and families. UNGRIPP submitted evidence on behalf of 36 people directly affected by IPP: two people serving the sentence and 34 family members. The inquiry report called for a major rethink of sentencing and made nine recommendations. We are extremely pleased that one recommendation was devoted solely to ‘ending the injustice caused by IPP.’ It is yet more evidence that, when subject to public scrutiny, IPP falls woefully short of any standards for justice. IPP has been characterised as the greatest single stain on the justice system and as a living-death sentence. The inquiry adds to this condemnation, stating that IPP “epitomises the way in which sentencing policy has lost its way”. A sentence described in such damning terms should have no place in our society. We welcome yet another spotlight shone on IPP by the inquiry, and renew our call for resentencing.


The remainder of this post summarises what the inquiry had to say about IPP. We acknowledge, and extend our sincere thanks to, the 36 individuals who shared their stories with the inquiry through UNGRIPP. IPP would not have received this kind of scrutiny without the continued efforts of families to communicate their pain. They should not have to continue telling the same stories when the evidence is clear: IPP needs to be completely abolished and replaced with a sentence fit for purpose.


Bishop Jones opens the report with a reminder that, when a new monarch takes their place in the UK they are sworn to “execute justice that you forget not mercy” – in a service that is the nearest thing the UK has to a constitution. He argues that the UK has lost its way in balancing not just justice and mercy, but punishment and reform. Current sentencing policy does not serve these needs in a way that makes sense to the offended or the offender. His opening remarks do not mention IPP specifically, but the dangers of poor sentencing that he outlines are all too familiar: a loss of all sense of proportional punishment, failure to help people, dead-end sentences with no hope, exacerbating mental health problems, and traumatising everyone who comes into contact with the system. In short, IPP represents everything that the inquiry says can – and has – gone wrong with sentencing.


The body of the report makes nine recommendations:


  1. A national debate on sentencing, which engages both expert bodies and ordinary citizens.

  2. Better information for victims of serious crime.

  3. Victims to be able to request summaries of prisoners’ progress.

  4. Better enforcement of entitlements for victims.

  5. Better access to restorative justice.

  6. Improve the content of long sentences.

  7. Greater external scrutiny of sentence progression.

  8. Improve the effectiveness of the Parole system.

  9. End the injustice faced by IPP prisoners.


In March 2022, at least 26,100 prisoners were serving a sentence that the inquiry defined as ‘long-term’ (determinate sentences of 10 years or more, extended and indeterminate sentences), of which 2,946 were serving IPP. For IPP to have attracted a separate recommendation amongst such a large problem is evidence of the scale of the suffering it has caused, and to the strength of the testimony given by families.


Much of the report’s discussion of IPP tracks the trends already well known to people directly affected: the rapid spike in numbers following IPP’s introduction, the vast numbers who are post-tariff by many years, and the rising number recalled to prison. It places these facts in the wider context, describing IPP as “the most substantial driver” of the vast growth of long sentences during this century. Many sadly familiar experiences of IPP are summarised: the impact of uncertainty, the toxic mix of injustice and hopelessness, the strain of jumping through constantly changing hoops, long waiting lists for courses, a seeming lack of any link between prisoners’ efforts and chances of progression, and the sense of never-ending punishment caused by ‘risk management’. The report suggests that these effects stem from an over-emphasis on public protection, which undermines any opportunities for reform or redemption. It also points out that the vast disproportionalities between tariff and time in prison cause people’s motivation to collapse, further undermining any belief that IPP rehabilitates. To people serving IPP and their families, this analysis of the situation will offer nothing new, and it is highly frustrating that the voices describing this state of affairs for over a decade are only now being heard in an official inquiry. Nevertheless, the testimony of families is now endorsed by a comprehensive investigation into sentencing. This underscores the reality of their pain and suffering, and makes it harder for the government to ignore.


The inquiry recommends “ending the injustice” of the IPP sentence and deliberately does not suggest a specific way to do this. They state that they are not an appropriate body for that task, and it should instead be the job of the Law Commission, a statutory independent body who recommend law reform to Parliament. The inquiry also urges the Government to give “careful consideration” to the recommendations that are yet to come from the Justice Select Committee. We are disappointed that the inquiry did not go further in recommending that people serving IPP should be resentenced, as it was clear from the testimony by families that they saw this as the most fair and just solution. Nevertheless, the report situates IPP squarely as an unjust sentence. It is clear that proportional punishment, mercy, reform, and restoration are commonsense notions of justice shared by perpetrators, victims, and public. The report paints a bleak picture of how IPP departed from these notions, to the detriment of all. IPP is misunderstood by the public and victims, experienced as disproportionately punitive by perpetrators and their families, undermines hope, health, motivation, and all the crucial ingredients that give people strength to turn their lives around. IPP has now been condemned by the courts, by judges, by peers, by the Government that abolished it, by experts, by people serving it, by families, and now by an independent inquiry, and there is strong reason to expect that the current Government’s inquiry will condemn it too. UNGRIPP’s call for resentencing is not a radical or fringe view – it is a step along the road that naturally leads on from this critical mass of condemnation. People serving IPP deserve a fair sentence. It's time the Government gave them one.


You can read the full ICEVLP report here: https://icevlp.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/ICEVLP-Making-sense-of-sentencing-web-copy.pdf


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