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Published on September 23rd, 2012 | by Madeline Schiesser

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UK Indeterminate Sentences Breach Prisoner Human Rights

By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

Strasbourg, France – The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled that the operation of indeterminate sentences for the protection of the public (IPPs) breaches human rights.  Under an IPP in the United Kingdom (UK), a court could sentence a prisoner to serve not only time for a committed crime, but to also to remain in prison until he had completed rehabilitation courses, which are difficult to gain access to.  Of the more than 6500 prisoners currently serving IPP terms, 3500 have completed their minimum sentences, but need to demonstrate rehabilitation. The ECtHR found that the IPP system has a “lack of resources,” without which prisoners whose minimum sentences have expired cannot realistically qualify for release.

IPPs were created to ensure that dangerous prisoners were rehabilitated before reentering the population, but the supporting system quickly became overwhelmed. (Photo Courtesy of BBC News)

Brett James, Nicholas Wells, and Jeffrey Lee, who were each imprisoned over two years longer than their minimum sentences, brought their cases before the ECtHR. They, like other IPP prisoners who had completed their minimum sentence found themselves in a catch 22; they could not qualify for release without rehabilitation courses, and such courses could not easily be obtained.  The three argued that there were “delays” in accessing the prison courses necessary to be eligible for release, caused by “a lack of resources.”  The ECtHR agreed.

Specifically, the ECtHR found that the IPP operation violated Article 5:1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans arbitrary detention.  The ECtHR characterized the IIP operation as “draconian measures for indeterminate detention without the necessary planning and without realistic consideration of the impact of the measures”.

The court further explained that “once the applicants’ tariffs had expired, their detention was justified solely on the grounds of the risk they posed to the public.”  At that point, the need for rehabilitative services becomes all the more urgent.   The applicants’ imprisonment was “arbitrary and therefore unlawful” when without an effort to progress them through the prison system “with a view to providing them with access to appropriate rehabilitative courses”

James, Wells, and Lee were awarded £14,000 in damages and close to £30,000 in costs.   It is estimated that if the British government were required to compensate all 3500 IPP prisoners held beyond their minimum sentence, it would cost about £16 million.

The new Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, expressed that he was “very disappointed by the ECHR decision,” further elaborating that he intends to appeal the decision: “it is not an area where I welcome the court seeking to make rulings, it is something we intend to appeal.”  The government has three months to do so.

The IPP was introduced in 2005 by Labour as a way to ensure that dangerous prisoners were rehabilitated before reentering the population by providing them with courses.  However, the system quickly became overburdened.  Since then, Ken Clarke, the last Justice Secretary, announced the cancelation of the IPP last year.

For now, the ECtHR decision will not affect prisoners in the UK currently serving IPP sentences.  A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice stated: “”Public protection will not be put at risk – the judgment does not find that indeterminate sentences are unlawful, and will not mean prisoners currently serving IPP sentences will have to be released.”

However, the decision will likely cause the UK to change the way that it sentences prisoners.  The government had already announced plans for a new regime of tough, determinate sentences.  The Ministry of Justice says “[t]his will see more dangerous criminals given life sentences, and others spending longer periods in prison, with tough license conditions on release.”

For further information, please see:

BBC News – Indeterminate Sentences ‘Breach Human Rights’ – 18 September 2012

Guardian – Strasbourg Judges Rule Indeterminate Sentences Unlawful – 18 September 2012

Independent – Indefinite Sentences Ruled Unlawful – 18 September 2012

Telegraph – Prisoners Locked Up Indefinitely Could Claim Millions in Compensation – 18 September 2012


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