Imprisoning people for crimes they might commit

The three "precogs" in a tank from the film Minority Report

I suspect most people in Britain think that detention without trial is a problem limited to dodgy dictatorships and Guantanamo Bay.  In fact more than 3,000 people are being held in prison in Britain on the basis that they might commit a crime in the future. Under the system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) people sent to prison (sometimes for quite minor offences) are held indefinitely, even though they have finished serving the time set by the judge as the appropriate time for the gravity of the offence committed.  To be released they have to convince a Parole Board that they won’t reoffend when they leave jail.

About seventy new people are detained under IPPs each month.  After serving the time deemed by the judge to be appropriate to their crime, they continue to be held in prison not for any crime they have committed, but against the possibility that they might commit a crime in the future.  They face the Kafka-esque burden of proving that they will not commit a crime if they are released, reversing the assumption of innocent until proven guilty.

The government has announced a review of indeterminate sentences. Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, said this on 21 June:

That is why, as the Prime Minister confirmed this morning, we are reviewing so-called indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection, with a view to replacing them with a more sensible, tough system of long, determinate sentences.

The Labour Party Shadow Justice Secretary has reacted:

We will not accept plans that water-down the protection given to the public by Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection.

We must hope that this form of words (‘not accept plans that water down protection’) has been carefully chosen not to preclude abolishing IPPs provided they are replaced with suitable sentences for serious offenders.

Kenneth Clarke is right to be trying to reform sentencing policy in general, and to get rid of IPPs.  I appreciate that it is Labour’s job to be the opposition, and they no doubt believe that many of their supporters would like to see tougher sentencing.   But I also think most people take their civil liberties seriously and fear an over-powerful state.

My father has been working tirelessly to get this unfair practice stopped (see here and here) and I’m proud of his determination and his willingness to stand up for justice.  IPPs are not supported by any of the professional groups, from prison governors to penal reform campaigners.  They have an appalling impact on the lives of some very vulnerable people.    Locking people up in case they commit a crime in future, and putting the burden on them to prove that they will not, is no part of British tradition or of British values.

I have written to my MP about this, asking him to support the abolition of indeterminate sentences. I hope you will take five minutes to do so too (just click here.)

4 thoughts on “Imprisoning people for crimes they might commit”

  1. asides from the horrible human rights and justice issues that you’ve outlined, how about a) the cost of incarceration, and b) the fact that British jails are frighteningly overcrowded already, with year-on-year increases – simply can’t build them fast enough to hold the burgeoning population.

    When you commit (and are found guilty of) a crime, the punishment is to be sent to prison. I strongly believe that you shouldn’t then be punished while in prison (it’s already bad enough having lost your liberty and being told what to do, all day long), but instead efforts made at rehabilitation.
    Did the Labour government that i voted for really introduce this unfathomable ‘maybe you might commit another one, so stay put’ rule? In the name of ‘law and order’ and being ‘tough on crime’?

    Disgusted; in Addis Ababa.

  2. Prision preventativa, as it is called, is very common in Mexico — making up I think 70 per cent, hard as that is to believe, of all people in the prison system there. The idea is that the person is in custody while the judicial system, which has its own police force, searches for the evidence to present at the actual trial. And of course that can take years. So truly Kafka-esque.

  3. As a long standing supporter of Amnesty, I possess deep inner fear and loathing of imprisonment without any sense of possible release. But I don’t think this is going to be ‘solved’ with a one side or the other kind of solution, as the indeterminate sentence was aimed at being fairer, I think, to those who ‘deserved’ a harsh sentence for their crime but given the nature of their crime (which may have been directed at one person, only intended, but with borderline control, and so on) a more empathetic response after a number of years in prison leaves everyone thinking there is no value in continuing the sentence. Crime and punishment in the UK and around the world contains a number of deep dilemmas which I think need truly creative solutions not bouncing from one side to the other, from lock everyone up forever to everyone can be reformed. In some respects the adversarial nature of the court system creates this narrow sentencing process. It is time that a longstanding review takes place which allows for creative solutions which political processes disallow. All the parties should consent to taking crime out of politics for a period of reform and evidence based decisions, with creative options available for those situations which are served neither by prison nor by simplistic ideas of reform.
    My fear in removing indeterminent sentences without this full review is that there will be many people locked up for many more years than makes sense, and that will cost as well.

  4. Pingback: Round up – 8/7/11 « Sarah Starrenburg

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