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Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection

Published Friday, December 9, 2016

The Coalition Government abolished the much criticised sentences of imprisonment for public protection (IPPs) in 2012. However, the change was not made retrospective, and around 4,000 prisoners were still serving IPPs in June 2016.There have been several recent calls for change.

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What are IPPs?

Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs) were introduced by the last Labour Government from 2005. They were designed to ensure that dangerous violent and sexual offenders stayed in custody for as long as they presented a risk to society.  Under the system, a person who had committed a specified violent or sexual offence would be given an IPP if the offence was not so serious as to merit a life sentence.  Once they had served their “tariff” they would have to satisfy the Parole Board that they no longer posed a risk before they could be released.

What’s the problem?

The main concerns about IPPs are that:

  • Some less serious offenders were given very short tariffs but then have been kept in prison for a long time after these have expired
  • The prison and parole systems could not cope with the need to give all these short‑tariff prisoners appropriate access to rehabilitative and resettlement programmes so that they could demonstrate they were no longer a risk to society
  • The administrative delays resulted in uncertainty and perceived injustice for prisoners and litigation
  • The rapid increase in the numbers of those on IPPs contributed to prison overcrowding, which in turn exacerbated the problems with providing rehabilitation

IPPs were abolished in 2012, but not for existing prisoners

The Coalition Government abolished sentences of imprisonment for public protection (IPPs) for offenders convicted on or after 3 December 2012, calling the system “not defensible”. It replaced them with different sentences for dangerous offenders.  However the change was not made retrospective. It didn’t apply to existing prisoners serving those sentences at the time. At the end of June 2016 there were still around 4,000 prisoners serving IPPs.

In April 2016, the then Justice Secretary Michael Gove said that whilst he had “no current plans” to change the statutory test for releasing IPP prisoners, there were initiatives to help them make progress towards release. He asked the chairman of the Parole Board to develop “an improved approach” to IPP prisoners.

Pressure for change

Former Justice Secretaries Ken Clarke and Michael Gove himself have called for reforms. The Chairman of the Parole Board set out in November 2016 how the Board can reduce the numbers of IPP prisoners but also suggested possible ways that the Government could take action if it wanted further reductions.  This could be done by revising the risk test (either for all IPP prisoners or for those with short tariffs) or releasing IPP prisoners who have now served longer than the maximum current sentence for their offence. 

In a recent thematic review, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, said it was “widely accepted that implementation of the sentence was flawed” and that “decisive action” was needed for reasons of cost, “fairness and justice” and to relieve pressures on the system. Recent Government statements point to “encouraging” progress” with reducing the numbers serving IPPs but point out the need to balance this progress with the potential dangers such prisoners can pose.

What can prisoners still serving IPPs do?

A prisoner serving an IPP who wished to challenge their continued detention would need to seek legal advice in the light of their full circumstances.

Commons Briefing papers SN06086

Author: Pat Strickland

Topics: Crimes of violence, Prisons

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