Sentencing laws: Mandatory life and public protection

Lady Justice, at the top of the dome of the Central Criminal Court, London
Image caption The government is proposing to scrap indefinite Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences

Is the government being tough on sentencing by extending the principle of mandatory life sentences? It certainly sounds that way.

When the death sentence was abolished in 1965, it was thought that the only sentence the public would accept in its place was the mandatory life sentence for murder.

Extending what is the most severe sentence available to our courts beyond the crime of murder, to those convicted of a second serious sexual or violent crime, appears to be both tough and certainly historic.

However, at the same time the government is scrapping what are known as indeterminate sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection, or IPPs.

These sentences were introduced to solve a difficult problem.

Public safety

In the late 1990's some very dangerous paedophiles came to the end of their prison sentences and - despite clearly being a danger to the public - had to be released. The thought of such people being at large was deeply worrying.

The solution was the indeterminate IPP, whereby offenders would not be released unless they were no longer considered a danger to the public.

Under IPPs a judge passed a tariff, or minimum sentence which the offender had to serve in prison.

It reflected the seriousness of the crime. Once it was served, the offender had to apply to the parole board for release. The board would not release if it considered the offender still to be a risk.

So, the problem of the dangerous paedophile or violent offender was considered solved. So far, so simple.

However, when IPPs came in it was envisaged that they would be used in relatively few, very serious cases. That did not happen and the numbers rose quickly.

IPPs were being passed on offenders with very short minimum terms, and yet those people were remaining in prison for years.

The reason was that once they had served their minimum term many of those on IPPs faced the near-impossible task of persuading the parole board they were no longer a danger to the public.

Support shortage

For someone with, for instance, a borderline personality disorder, who was unable to access courses to address their condition in prison, it amounted effectively to life imprisonment.

And there simply were not enough courses available in prison for those on IPPs.

Because of the large numbers being imposed, the criteria for passing an IPP was changed.

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 meant they could only be imposed if the judge would have passed minimum determinate sentence of four years.

This helped slow the rate of growth in IPPs, but the overall numbers continued to increase. There are now some 6,500 prisoners on IPPs.

The net effect of IPPs was that criminals who had served their minimum term but remained a danger to the public could be kept in prison - but today this adds up to around 3,500 offenders.

Hammer and nut?

Some will not have had the chance to address the issues that make them dangerous and so not have had the chance to change.

For many observers, therefore, IPPs have swollen prison numbers, kept many in prison who should not be there and feel rather like a hammer to crack a nut.

The problem for the government is that by scrapping IPPs they return to the problem of the late 1990s.

The Ministry of Justice estimates that only 20 of those prisoners subject to IPPs would have received the new "two strikes" mandatory life sentence.

Some of those who would have received IPPs under the current system will in future have to be released once they have served their sentence.

If one such person who is released goes on to commit a dreadful crime, there will be those who cry bitterly that it would not have happened had they been on an IPP.

So, while appearing tough by extending the mandatory life sentence beyond murder, the government is open to the allegation of being weak in scrapping IPPs which some still regard as a vital public protection tool.

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