The Guardian view on indeterminate sentences: the legacy of a bad law lingers on

The harmful effects of imprisonment for public protection sentences (IPPs) are well documented. For Tommy Nicol and Francis Williams, whose sisters have both spoken to the Guardian about the impact of punishments with no end-date, the pressure was unbearable. Nicol, who was originally jailed for a violent robbery, took his own life during a mental health crisis at the Mount prison in 2015. Williams, also convicted of robbery, died of an overdose in Bognor Regis last year – hours after telling a probation officer that he was suicidal.

These tragedies are far from unique. At least 90 prisoners on IPPs have died by suicide in custody. Others, including Williams, died while on licence (Williams was on the verge of being recalled). One study found rates of self-harm to be 2.5 times higher among IPP prisoners. Evidence to the justice select committee from a forensic psychiatrist compared the clinical presentation of these inmates, almost all of whom are men, to “those who have been wrongfully convicted”. Such is the stress of being given this kind of sentence, which resembles a life sentence but was in many cases handed down for far less serious crimes.

In a grim irony, changes since 2012 have made the situation worse as well as better. Following a ruling by the European court of human rights, IPPs were abolished. But the decision not to apply new rules retrospectively increased the burden carried by those who already had them. In addition to their original, unjust punishment, they had to cope with the unfairness of more recent offenders being treated differently.

David Blunkett, who as home secretary was responsible for IPPs, said in 2021: “I got it wrong”. In 2022 the justice select committee recommended that an expert group should be formed with a view to resentencing IPP prisoners – freeing them from this legacy of error. This is a good idea as there would need to be a delicate balance struck between protecting the public and justice for the individual while respecting judicial independence.

Last month, a prevention of future deaths notice issued by a coroner said “all agree that IPP sentences were a terrible idea”. But despite this weight of opinion, which is shared by the former lord chief justice Lord Thomas, the government has rejected resentencing, as has Labour.

Some changes are being made in response to the justice committee’s work. An amendment to the victims and prisoners bill would reduce the qualifying period for a licence review for probationers. But serious problems remain, including the requirement for prisoners to prove they are no longer dangerous before release – a task the committee said was “almost impossible”. It’s easy to see why this condition appealed to lawmakers. Which government wouldn’t protect the public from violent offenders if it could? But parole decisions balance rather than eliminate risk. And indeterminate sentences, of which 8,711 were issued, have hindered rehabilitation and contributed to mental illness.

With courts and prisons in a state of crisis, leading to massive delays and terrible outcomes, remedying past wrongs will not be the next government’s priority. Any resentencing exercise would carry costs and require consultation with victims. But as a former director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer speaks with authority on such matters. He and Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary, should commit to addressing the unfinished business of IPP reform in due course. Along with their parliamentary colleagues, they should also heed the cautionary tale that the episode offers: bad laws can be easier to make than to get rid of.

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