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Doctor’s Log - Star Date 02122019

"It’s not a case of he’ll be home one day"

Following the dreadful events of last Friday, the criminal justice system once again finds itself in the spotlight with a corresponding slew of armchair observers airing their views as to the apparent problems and potential solutions.

In the last three or four years there has been increasing attention on the use of short prison sentences and their effectiveness in the UK. This has primarily focused on the continued evidence of high rates of recidivism for those who have served short prison sentences and the inability of these sentences to reform or rehabilitate offenders.

Current evidence suggests that over half of all custodial sentences are for up to six months, with the majority of prisoners serving only a few weeks or months inside prison. In terms of rehabilitation, the experiences gained over those short periods of time appear to have little, if any effect. Over half of those on short sentences are reconvicted within one year and reconviction rates have been steadily rising over the last ten years. We have, however, been struggling to make short sentences ‘work’ for a considerable time now, with a significant stream of criticism stretching back for over 100 years.

The use of custodial sentences – just as financially costly and ineffective as they have always been - will continue to damage chances of rehabilitation at the outset. Sentenced offenders lose their residences, their jobs, and sometimes their family relationships as soon as they go through the doors of the prison.

The ‘reformed’ prisons of the early decades of the 19th Century employed strategies of isolation and silence to punish, but the use of the separate system and the silent system was often based on the notion that prisoners had to be confined for long enough in order for the regime to have any effect.

Indeterminate Public Protection sentences (IPPs) were introduced by the dangerous offender provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. They were life sentences in all but name, differing only in that offenders subject to an IPP could apply to have their sentence discharged once 10 -years had elapsed following their release on licence from custody.

As originally enacted, the provisions attracted criticism for being too prescriptive and, as a consequence, too draconian. An adult offender committing an offence listed in Schedule 15 to the 2003 Act (a 'specified offence'), provided that the offence was punishable with either a life sentence or a sentence of at least 10 -years' imprisonment (making it a 'serious offence'), would have to receive either a life sentence or an IPP if he met the test for dangerousness.

The test was whether the offender posed a significant risk to members of the public of serious harm occasioned by the commission by him of further such offences. Similar provisions provided for sentences of detention for public protection for offences committed by offenders aged under 18 -years. The evidence gathered suggests a worrying picture, as the unique nature of the IPP sentence has resulted in a severely detrimental impact upon families and children. With no definite release date, there is an absence of hope, which can quickly lead to despair for IPP prisoners and their families who have very little understanding of the gravity of their predicament.

In July 2011 the Government announced a review of the unclear and inconsistent IPP sentence. Following that review a range of consistent long sentences with fixed end dates were introduced. Dangerous criminals will serve a tough extended sentence which includes a long prison term and a long period of supervision when the prison sentence has been served. However, the changes will not be retrospective. Current IPP prisoners will continue to serve their sentences and will only be released when the Parole Board assesses them as suitable.

Is it now time to revisit the sentencing framework for terrorist offences, and empower the custodial environment (Governor, Head of Reducing Reoffending, OMU & Inside Probation) in order to better quantify risk, together with a framework which recognises the unique features of this offending behaviour?

Dr Nicholas Murdoch