Imprisonment for Public Protection: ‘The Greatest Single Stain’ on the UK Justice System Commentary
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Imprisonment for Public Protection: ‘The Greatest Single Stain’ on the UK Justice System

In a distressing and seemingly interminable saga within the UK justice system, individuals sentenced to a mere two years have found themselves ensnared in unyielding decades-long stints of confinement—a grim consequence of the since-abolished Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) policy. In 2020, Lord Brown, a former justice of the UK Supreme Court wrote he had “no hesitation in describing the continuing aftermath of the ill-starred IPP sentencing regime as the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system.

As with many historical failures of criminal justice systems, the intentions behind IPP sentencing weren’t as grim as their ultimate consequences.

Initially, UK policymakers sought to protect society from perpetrators of violent and sexual offenses whose crimes did not rise to the level of warranting a life sentence.

In theory, under the scheme, a person convicted of such a crime would receive a minimum term, referred to as a tariff, during which they were expected to undergo training, educational courses, and other rehabilitative activities. Upon completing their tariff, the individual would in theory be eligible for release, assuming they could prove they no longer posed a threat to the public. Once released, the individual would be subject to recall on an indefinite basis.

In practice, the policy proved far more Kafkaesque. In total, 8,711 individuals were handed IPP sentences. Many found that they were unable to access the courses and other resources required for their ultimate release, so when they came up for parole, they couldn’t demonstrate their eligibility, leading to a bleakly repetitive cycle for many.

IPP sentencing was abolished in 2012, following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, stating that:

“Without current and periodic means of assessing the prisoner’s risk the regime cannot work as Parliament intended, and the only possible justification for the prisoner’s further detention is altogether absent. In that case the detention is arbitrary and unreasonable on first principles, and therefore unlawful.”

However, the abolition of IPP sentencing was not made retroactive. As such, nearly 3,000 people continue to languish in British prisons, unable to break out of the cycle. Of these, hundreds originally had tariffs of less than two years for such relatively minor offenses as stealing bikes or mobile phones, but decades later, remain behind bars.

The mental health toll has been acute. A study by the United Group for Reform of IPP revealed that among those sentenced to IPP, 69 had committed suicide, and suicidal ideation was rife. The study also found that self-harm rates among this demographic were double those of inmates who had received life sentences, and nearly double those of people with determinate sentences.

At the end of 2022, the House of Commons Justice Committee issued a report on IPP sentences, in which they called on the government to, among other recommendations:

“Bring forward legislation to enable a resentencing exercise in relation to all IPP sentenced individuals…This is the only way to address the unique injustice caused by the IPP sentence and its subsequent administration, and to restore proportionality to the original sentences that were given.”

The government rejected these recommendations in February 2022, with the then Justice Secretary Dominic Raab stating that the government had “no plans to conduct a resentencing exercise.”

The rejection was met with strong criticism, in particular from the Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Robert Neill, who said that “the government has not listened. The nettle has not been grasped and, as a result, these people will remain held in an unsustainable limbo.”

In August 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Alice Edwards, complained to the government that the IPP scheme created “levels of pain or suffering beyond those inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions, as specified in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (article 1),” as well as potentially contravening multiple other international conventions. She endorsed the recommendations of the Justice Committee and urged the government to conduct a resentencing exercise for all remaining IPP-sentenced individuals.

The UK’s Ministry of Justice announced plans last month to terminate indefinite sentences for over 1,800 offenders currently on parole, meaning that these ex-prisoners would be “eligible to have their [parole] period terminated earlier as part of new reforms.”

But there is still no movement on the thousands still imprisoned. Alice Edwards wrote on X that she welcomed these proposed amendments but that “there is still a cohort to whom the legislation does not appear to apply.”

Lawyer and campaigner, Peter Stefanovic, released a video in which he outlined the injustices of IPP sentences, which has now had nearly 4 million views on X. He stated that IPP sentences were unthinkable but that they were happening “right now, today, in this country.”

Sir Robert Neill and a cohort of MPs are tabling an amendment to the forthcoming Victims and Prisoners Bill, calling for resentencing of IPP prisoners. Successive Justice Secretaries have failed to make any decisive moves towards justice for IPP prisoners.

The current Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, has previously echoed Lord Brown’s words and called IPP sentences a “stain” on the justice system.

Whether he is willing to take meaningful legislative action to help clean that stain remains to be seen.

Alexis Boddy is a second-year student at City University London (GB) and an assistant editor at JURIST Legal News.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.