"In 2054, the six-year PreCrime experiment was abandoned. All prisoners were unconditionally pardoned and released, though police departments kept watch on many of them for years to come."
These are the last lines of Minority Report, a 2002 film loosely based on a short story by Phillip K Dick. A police department called 'PreCrime', arrests criminals based on information provided by three psychics (‘precogs’) who can foresee murders before they have actually happened. The criminals are permanently incarcerated in a virtual prison - despite having never actually committed the crime – on the basis that it will prevent them from doing so.
The protagonist eventually discovers that the three ‘precogs’ do not always agree on their visions of the future. When this happens, the majority view prevails and the 'minority report' is ignored.
Imprisonment for Public Protection
A version of the PreCrime experiment has been in operation in this country for over ten years. It is called Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP).
There is an obvious difference with the fictional world of Minority Report in that IPP prisoners have committed at least one serious offence. Before the IPP sentence was invented (and since it has been abolished) these offences would attract a prison sentence. However long that sentence was, it would have an end date. The last part of the sentence would be spent ‘on licence’.
The difference with the IPP sentence - and where they begin to resemble 'PreCrime' sentences – is that they have a predictive element at the end which can lead to perpetual punishment. When the punishment period (the 'minimum term' ) has been served, IPP prisoners will not be released if a panel of the Parole Board believe that there is more than a minimal chance that they may harm someone in the future.
Risk assessment is not a science. It is, at best, informed guesswork. Parole Board panels are often made up of three members and so there is every chance of a 'minority report'.
Since the Parole Board started listing cases with two members, differences of opinion are easier to spot because deadlocked decisions will be disclosed. In those cases the prisoner will have to wait for another hearing to have another go at trying to convince a different panel that they will not harm someone in the future.
Abolition of the IPP Sentence and the Forgotten Thousands
Parliament abolished the IPP sentence altogether in 2012 but did not convert existing IPP sentences into 'fixed' or 'determinate' sentences with an end date.
Four years later there are still 3859 men and women serving IPP sentences.
Practically all of these have served their punishment term. The table below shows the number of extra years they have served already.
They are being detained preventatively because of something they may (or may not) do in the future.
It is tempting for a society to lock people away indefinitely in the hope that it will keep that society safer. But it is ethically and morally questionable.
The Call for Action
I wrote an article about IPPs for The Guardian in July when this story last made its way on the news agenda. The article highlighted the opportunity for Liz Truss to act and to rely upon the advice she had received from newly appointed Parole Board Chair, Nick Hardwick.
She did not choose to listen to Nick Hardwick and did not include action on IPPs within the White Paper on Prison Reform which was published in November.
It is not just campaigners and families of IPP prisoners protesting about the sentence and calling for action to bring the nightmare to an end.
Last week, Michael Gove, who was Secretary of State for Justice as recently as July, called for his successor to do what he failed to do while in office and bring an end to the sentences of several hundred IPP prisoners.
Last week the Prisons Inspectorate issued a detailed report highlighting very serious concerns and called for decisive action to be taken by the Justice Secretary to reduce the number of prisoners still serving IPP sentences years after the end of their tariffs.
Nick Hardwick also issued a press statement last week on behalf of the Parole Board which highlighted that Parliament had given the Justice Secretary powers to change the rules for IPPs and explained that he had given her a number of options about how that could be done, particularly for those prisoners who pose least risk.
One of these options was to direct the release of all IPP prisoners who have served more than the maximum sentence they could receive for the offence for which they were convicted.
What Action Has Liz Truss Taken?
In August Liz Truss promised the Justice Select Committee that IPPs were now being given ‘enhanced case management’ by civil servants in the Ministry of Justice. The recent White Paper on Prison Reform included nothing of significance on IPPs.
When she was questioned after the Chief Inspector’s report had been published, she said that a 'new unit' had been set up to explore the issue.
No details of what the new unit actually entails have been disclosed.
My hunch is that it will consist of case managers based centrally in the Public Protection Casework Section looking through dossiers for IPP prisoners and urging prisons to be more active in offering them interventions. This will have very little impact and will prolong the agony for those prisoners. The test for the Parole Board will be the same and risk-averse Parole Board members will still be reluctant to release them.
Yesterday, the Parole Board Rules were changed to allow the Parole Board to make paper decisions to release IPP prisoners rather than having to have an oral hearing before they can do so.
I do not think this will make any discernible difference to the IPP population.
Parole Board members will still be applying the same test and are likely to be reluctant to make release decisions without taking the precaution of exploring cases in an oral hearing.
An Alternative Proposal for Liz Truss
There is an alternative but it will require a very different approach. It will still have public protection in mind but will shift resources away from prison into the community.
Liz Truss could accept that she has to release IPP prisoners and begin planning immediately to do so. She could convert the cost of keeping IPP prisoners in custody into 'enhanced case management in the community'.
In practical terms this would mean equipping the Probation Service, local authorities and NHS with the means to provide the kind of support and supervision that some IPP prisoners will need to enable them to cope and resettle in the community.
The average annual cost of a prison place in England and Wales is £36,259.
Keeping the current number of IPP prisoners in custody for another two years will cost £279,846,962.
That kind of money buys a lot of much-needed community resources. It might also pay for a few more prison officers. It also creates almost 4,000 less prisoners in the prison system.
IPP prisoners would still be subject to licence conditions and subject to recall. It is very likely that this would need to be retained as a safeguard in order for action of this kind to be politically palatable.
Inhuman Perpetual Punishment
Perpetual punishment for people who have served their time is inhuman. The PreCrime experiment in Minority Report was brought to an end after six years. The IPP experiment has lasted a lot longer. It has to stop.