In Brief

What are IPPs and why are they in the news?

Indeterminate sentences were abolished in 2012 but ‘Kafka-esque’ detentions continue

The decision to release John Worboys, a London black cab driver jailed indefinitely in 2009 for sexual assault and rape, has brought Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences under the microscope once again.

What are IPPs?

IPPs were introduced in the UK in 2003 to shield society from dangerous, violent and sexual offenders, whose crimes were not severe enough to warrant a life sentence but who posed a “significant risk”. IPPs were part of a package of reforms designed to secure “justice for all” – a rebalance required due to the defendant-focused nature of the criminal justice system, said critics at the time. An IPP sentence is indeterminate and has no release date.

Why are they so controversial?

The sentence was applied far more widely than envisaged, the BBC says. Rather than targeting dangerous criminals – increasing the prison population by an estimated 900 people – the sentence was awarded, at its peak, to 6,000 offenders. Many included “petty arsonists, pub brawlers and street muggers”, the New Statesman says. Vice News points out that one person given an IPP had merely caused damage to an allotment.

Remaining in custody indefinitely can be mentally tortuous. People serving IPPs suffer higher rates of self-harm and suicide than the general prison population. Released inmates face at least 10 years on licence and risk being recalled to prison for minor breaches.

In 2012, following an unfavourable ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, the UK abolished IPPs.

Why are they still in the news?

The changes don’t apply retrospectively, so the more than 3,300 inmates serving IPP sentences in England and Wales must prove they no longer pose a risk to society in order to walk free. Inmates are often denied access to courses needed to demonstrate their rehabilitation, compounding the injustice.

It’s a “Kafka-esque situation”, Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform told the New Statesman. “You’ve got people in the system who need to prove they’re no longer dangerous, but they have no means to do that”.

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