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.)