It’s been eight years since the IPP sentence was abolished – so why is it still here?
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Most people in this country think that we only give out life sentences for the most serious crimes. But between 2005 and 2013, 8,711 people were given a type of life sentence called Indefinite Sentence for Public Protection – known as an IPP sentence.
The IPP sentence was given to people who had committed a wide range of crimes, from taking a life, to criminal damage. It was based on judgements about the crimes a person may commit in the future, not what they’d already done. Its aim was to detain people indefinitely who were judged as a future risk.
The Government abolished the sentence eight years ago, acknowledging that it was unjust, and ineffective at reducing crime. But it did not remove the IPP sentence from those already serving it.
Today most people given the IPP sentence are still serving life for crimes which would never attract a life sentence today, causing untold damage to them, their families, and the reputation of the justice system.
Today, on the eighth anniversary of the IPP sentence’s abolition, we launch UNGRIPP: a project that confronts the legacy of the IPP sentence. We have four aims:
Educate. We think more people should know about the IPP sentence.
Campaign. We want the sentence to be changed for those serving it.
Remember. We want to make sure those serving the IPP sentence are not forgotten.
Support. We want to make sure that everybody affected by the IPP sentence receives the support that they need.
In our first blog post, we ask, why is there a need for UNGRIPP? A sentence that no longer exists in law should not require action eight years later. We examine why the sentence continues to operate, and the changes that UNGRIPP is campaigning for.
How does the IPP sentence work?
All life sentences specify the amount of time that a person must spend in prison as punishment (known as a ‘tariff’). This usually reflects the seriousness of their crime. Once their tariff has finished (referred to as ‘expired’), they continue to be detained in prison on the basis of protecting the public from what they might do. They can apply to the Parole Board to be released, but must show that they have lowered their risk of committing more crime. The Parole Board – in conjunction with other professionals – will decide if that person is too dangerous to be released from prison, or can be released safely back into society.
Once released, that person serves their sentence in the community for the rest of their life, under restrictions about where they can live, who they can see and what they can do, monitored and enforced by the Probation Service. They can be recalled to prison indefinitely if they do not obey restrictions, and must apply again for re-release.
Life sentences are usually given for very serious crimes, with tariffs of many years. The IPP sentence was given out for an unusually wide range of 153 crimes. Some were very serious, and some were not. Unlike a traditional life sentence, the IPP sentence was given out based on what that person might do in the future, rather than what they had done in the past. If a judge considered a person as dangerous, they received an IPP sentence. However, their tariff was still set based on the seriousness of their crime, resulting in many people spending over a decade in prison for a crime that was ordinarily only punishable by a few months or years in prison.
You can read a more detailed summary of the IPP sentence here.
What’s the problem?
The IPP sentence hasn’t achieved what the criminal justice system tries to deliver: fair punishment and reduced crime. You can read our analysis of 10 reasons why the IPP sentence doesn’t work here. Briefly, they are:
Too many IPP sentences were given out.
Not enough rehabilitative help was available.
People did not appreciate how serious the sentence was.
Prison is not the best place for change.
The sentence is psychologically toxic.
We can’t predict the future.
The sentence damages people, and their families.
Licenses are not working.
There is little evidence that sentences like the IPP are effective.
The sentence loses sight of justice.
The sentence was abolished because the Government acknowledged it was unjust to give the same sentence for so many different crimes; inhumane to give a life sentence for less serious crimes; and ineffective because it didn’t create the conditions for rehabilitation and reform that it was supposed to deliver.
If it doesn’t work, why is it still here?
The Government did not abolish the IPP sentence for those already serving it. There are several ways they could have done so – read our outline of the options here. To not abolish it for people already serving the sentence was – and remains - a political choice.
The debate on the IPP sentence continues fairly regularly in Parliament. It coalesces on justice versus safety. Some MPs argue that imprisoning people indefinitely for anything but the most serious crimes is unjust, and inhumane. It loses any sense of proportion, and deprives people of hope of being restored to society. It also fails to distinguish between crimes. Two cases that illustrate this point are James Ward and John Worboys. James Ward was given an IPP sentence with a 10 month tariff for setting fire to his mattress, following a mental health breakdown. He served 11 years before he was released. John Worboys was given an IPP sentence with an eight year tariff for the rape and sexual assault of 12 women. He served 10 years before being granted release, but this was overturned due to public outcry. A sentence which delivers 11 years of punishment to Ward and 10 years to Worboys has not achieved justice – something which the victims of both men have attested to.
But MPs on the other side of the debate raise the issues of safety, risk, and dangerousness. They – correctly – remind everyone that justice was never the purpose of the IPP sentence. It was designed to protect the public from people who are considered at risk of going on to commit further serious crime. It was brought in following several high profile cases where people released from prison had done just that. To abolish the IPP sentence retrospectively, they argue, would risk releasing people who will “inevitably” go on to cause further harm.
And therein lies the main reason that the IPP sentence is still here. A wholesale release of “dangerous criminals” will never win public support. And, if that were the case, it shouldn’t. In the justice vs safety debate, safety will always win. And because of that, what wins is the Government’s current approach: attempting to administrate the IPP sentence, if not out of existence, then at least out of consciousness. Since 2016, administrative changes have been made to make greater rehabilitative provision for IPPs, and provide closer managerial scrutiny of each person still serving the sentence. This should, so the argument goes, fix the issues with the sentence, and anybody who fails to respond to these administratively engineered improvements is precisely the sort of dangerous person that the sentence was designed for.
And yet despite the changes the Government says that it has made to address the IPP sentence, it is still here, and the problems remain. Release rates have now stalled. Supporters of the administrative approach imply that this is because only the riskiest people are now left in prison. And yet nearly 60% of those never released are people that were given tariffs of less than 4 years, indicating they committed less serious crimes.
Furthermore, the recall rate has vastly increased, predominantly due to minor breaches of license conditions rather than fresh crimes. People serving IPP sentences continue to self-harm at higher rates than other prisoners, and the pain suffered by their loved ones continues unabated. In 2019 the Chair of the Parole Board predicted that, without legislative change, there would still be 1,500 people serving an IPP sentence in prison by 2020. It is now 2020, and there are in fact 3,252 people still serving an IPP sentence in prison.
UNGRIPP believes that the justice vs safety stalemate, and the insistence of the Government on an administrative approach, are the reasons that the IPP sentence is still blighting the justice system, and people’s lives. We believe a change in the conversation is required, with recognition of the fundamental limitations of the current approach.
These limitations are manifold. One is simply in the language used. ‘IPP’ is an example of what social psychologist Albert Bandura called euphemistic labelling – a neutral or innocuous sounding term that disguises a thing’s true harm or moral reprehensibility. Calling the IPP sentence what it truly is – a life sentence based on predicting the future – would go some way to keeping sight of why it needs urgently addressing.
Another issue is the notion of ‘risk’. Humans are natural risk assessors. We are motivated to pay attention to what may harm us, so that we can take action to avoid it. Hence, any suggestion that a person may be ‘risky’ or ‘dangerous’ sounds alarming. In recent years, society has entered an era of increasingly trying to control risk. We are sold a fantasy that – with the right powers and measures – the Government can make sure we are protected from things that threaten us. Eventually, this is what people come to demand, and expect. But the truth is, risk is a slippery, elusive concept that – by very dint of being about the future – does not yet exist, and therefore cannot be easily pinned down or measured. When it comes to people committing further crime we can – at best – predict the likelihood with around 70% accuracy. A risk assessment will be slightly more effective than tossing a coin, to decide if someone is safe to release. But even this is based on applying knowledge about a large group of people, to one single person. As any gambler, or anyone who has bought car insurance will know, the ‘odds’ that your horse will win are not always borne out, and the price you pay for your car insurance often bears little relation to your actual level of recklessness as a driver.
The IPP sentences continues on the back of the fantasy that we can control risk, with the right assessment, intervention and management of a person’s life. And any uncertainty on that point, any resistance on the part of the person serving the sentence to having their life so managed, and any lack of provision in the system, leads logically to continued confinement as the safer option. But this conception of risk as measurable and controllable does not account for the messy, complex reality of life, nor for how treating someone as risky may actually increase risk.
This point has surely never been clearer than now, when we are all subject to quarantining rules for Covid-19. If we’re at risk of infecting someone, we are contained for the protection of the public. But our cooperation is dependent on the belief that our risk of infection has been judged accurately, that we will only be detained for a defined period, and that the restrictions will not be too onerous. When any of these conditions are broken, we see resistance (to the accuracy of the science), rebellion (to the restrictions placed on us) and extreme distress (when the restrictions separate us from loved ones and livelihoods). The tighter that the state “grips” us, the more difficult we find it to live, even when we know that there is a good reason for it.
We have learnt that life is hard enough when restrictions are enforced with reasonable aims, accuracy, and conditions. For people serving an IPP sentence, this is far from their experience. We expect those serving the sentence to engage in efforts to change their behaviour. But we simultaneously rip families apart with the strain of uncertainty and long years of separation, we alienate people from a justice system that refuses to do anything material about the injustice it handed down, and we provide prison conditions of violence, overcrowding, fear and strain.
To make matters worse, we then subject people’s response to this grim reality to regular judgements on their character, their compliance, and their likelihood of future criminality – an intrusion which many of us would find difficult to accept. It is hard to imagine anything more likely to increase someone’s risk. In this way, the sentence, at worst, creates what it aims to control, and at best, may do some good in spite of the psychologically toxic conditions it creates, not because of them. We have tried to grip people too hard, and with hindsight it’s not hard to see why people haven’t responded in the way that was hoped.
To change the conversation and move things forward, we need to stop talking about justice vs safety, and start talking about justice and safety. But to do that, we need to name the seriousness of the injustice, and acknowledge our limitations in achieving safety. We cannot be perfectly just or perfectly safe, but we can do both better by changing the IPP sentence.
The UNGRIPP Campaign
Historically, calls for change in the IPP sentence have varied. The central problem is that no single change will deliver the right thing for every person serving the IPP sentence. The only thing that unites them is the sentence itself. Therefore, to talk about changes “for IPPs” is almost certainly bound to run into problems. UNGRIPP campaigns for a united approach to the sentence, but an individualised approach to the people serving the sentence.
We have three campaign goals:
Justice. We believe that the best way to restore justice to people serving the IPP sentence is to bring back a measure of proportionality for their crimes. We believe this is best achieved by proportionate resentencing of every person. Some people with an IPP sentence would still attract a life sentence today. Some would attract sentences of a few months. The IPP sentence failed because of its unrealistic ambition of dealing with people based on what they might do. We must now restore a sense of fairness based on what people have done. This would dispense with the complexity of what changes would suit the circumstances of all people serving an IPP sentence. We need to acknowledge that they are not all the same (apart from common humanity), and start from the point of what they are there for. Much of the despair, alienation and hopelessness that is experienced by people serving the IPP sentence and their families, stems from the complete dismantling of the sort of social contract that we are all familiar with: the serving of a fair and proportional punishment, at the end of which there is restoration. Without a fundamental sense of justice restored to people serving an IPP sentence, other changes are unlikely to work.
Reform. Achieving resentencing will inevitably take time. During that time, people continue to serve the IPP sentence and experience the difficulty and damage caused by it. If the Government insists on responding administratively, we believe it can go further in its reform. We believe that it can particularly do more to reform the license portion of the sentence, so that once people are back in the community, they stay there. People serving the sentence have described how they continue to live their life in fear of a wrong move, a compromising situation, or struggling with a problem, on the basis of which they may again be judged ‘risky’. Instead of reducing risk, this undermines the likelihood that people serving their sentence will be honest about their problems. An indefinite license period also eliminates any hope of freedom. We would like to see the principle of proportionality extended to the IPP license, now, by allowing it to finish after a period proportionate to the original crime, and by eliminating the use of indefinite recall.
Support. Whilst the IPP sentence continues to exist, it should genuinely help people to move on from crime and rebuild their lives. We believe this can only be done by acknowledging the unique plight of people serving an abolished sentence, and by providing support that addresses the damage caused by the sentence, as well as at reducing reoffending. That damage also extends to the families of those serving IPP sentences. We believe that the Government should develop a substantial package of support for all those affected by the IPP sentence, which operates on the twin principles of reducing reoffending and healing state-inflicted harm. We believe that the latter would a long way to achieving the former.
If you want to support the UNGRIPP campaign, there are lots of things you can do to help. We are asking people to write to their MP, asking for the changes we have outlined. You can find your MP, and a template letter here. Several MPs are sympathetic to the plight of people serving the IPP sentence (see if yours is one of them), and bolstering their efforts with public support will be enormously helpful. You can also promote our campaign through social media.
However, we recognise that the IPP sentence is an enormously complex issue (which we hope we have demonstrated through our analysis of it here), and one of our aims is also to bring people together and foster new conversation. Even if you don’t agree with our particular campaign goals, you can help us keep the IPP sentence visible by supporting our other three pillars:
Direct people to our summary of the IPP sentence, and 10 reasons it doesn’t work.
Share material from our archive – which we believe is the biggest archive of material ever gathered on the IPP sentence.
Share one of our infographics on the IPP sentence – coming soon via our Twitter account.
Follow and promote our Twitter project ‘The Forgotten’, where we post the stories of people serving the IPP sentence, who write to us.
Keep up with IPP watch: our regular feature on parliamentary activity, and information released by the Ministry of Justice. Help us keep the sentence visible.
If you know somebody serving an IPP sentence who is struggling, point them to our support directory.
Help us build our support directory. We recognise that the problems of the IPP sentence are complex, and not everywhere is equipped to deal with them sensitively or effectively. We are aiming to make our directory tailored to the IPP sentence. If you know (or run) an organisation that is particularly helpful or experienced in working with people on IPP sentences, please let us know.
In the coming months, we hope to blog in more detail about the problems of the IPP sentence, and its complexities and uncertainties, but most of all we hope to bring people together with the same hope of genuine change. It’s already eight years overdue.