The Guardian view on indeterminate sentences: unjust

It is a waste of money to keep people locked up on indeterminate sentences. And it is no way to run a justice system either

James Ward was given a 10-month IPP for arson, a decade ago. He is still in prison. More than 3,000 like him have served beyond their tariff expiry dates.
James Ward was given a 10-month IPP for arson, a decade ago. He is still in prison. More than 3,000 like him have served beyond their tariff expiry dates.

James Ward was convicted of arson in 2006. He was given an indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) for the protection of the public with a tariff – the minimum sentence he had to serve before he could be considered for parole – of 10 months. Back then, Charles Clarke was home secretary in a Labour government with a mission to be tough on crime. That was a decade ago. Soon afterwards sentencing became a matter for the new justice department. Liz Truss is currently its sixth secretary of state. James Ward is still in prison. David Blunkett, the Labour home secretary who introduced the IPP policy in 2005, long ago recognised that it was a mistake.

Within months of the power coming into force it was clear that nervous courts were using it too often for fear of public shaming at the hands of the media. In 2008, another justice secretary, Jack Straw, introduced a “threshold of seriousness”, restricting IPPs to serious offences that carried a tariff of more than two years. But it was not retrospective: those already in prison stayed there. In 2012, Mr Straw’s successor, Kenneth Clarke – who had inherited 6,000 prisoners on IPPs, of whom nearly a third had already served more than their tariff – finally changed the law, but only after he had been widely vilified for calling them “absurd”. Once again, the change did not apply retrospectively.

And that is why James Ward, a man with a low IQ and mental health problems, who has told the BBC that he feels trapped in a box, is still locked up. So are another 3,859 prisoners sentenced to an IPP, 3,200 of whom are beyond their tariff expiry date. Many have served more than five years above their original tariff. Undoubtedly, some remain a risk. But it is hard to say how many because, as Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons says in his latest annual report, many are still denied access to the behaviour amendment courses they need to complete in order even to apply for parole. This, as a court has said, is “deplorable”. It’s a system that wrongs individuals while wasting scarce resources in a prison service so short of cash that many prisoners are locked up for 23 hours a day.

On Thursday Michael Gove became the latest former justice secretary to recant. Delivering the Longford Trust lecture in memory of the great 20th-century prison reformer, he listed the things he might have done had he not embarked on a course of auto-defenestration after the referendum. Among them, he included releasing those 500 or so prisoners serving indeterminate sentences who have served more than the maximum sentence for the offence. Of course, it is a shame he did not consider executive clemency while he was in charge. But crime and punishment have been politically neuralgic ever since Michael Howard first claimed that prison works. That is why IPPs were first introduced, and that is why it is now so hard to get rid of them. It will need a consensus; Mr Gove’s defenders will argue that is what he was trying to build.

Meanwhile this government, so determined to take back control, is visibly not in control of prisons like Guys Marsh in Dorset, where pictures of inmates apparently enjoying a party escaped from social media to the front of the Daily Mail. The government is at a fork in the road on prisons policy. It could take the expensive course of building more prisons and recruiting more officers. Or it could take up the Gove challenge of sending fewer to prison and giving them a more constructive prison experience. Releasing those who have already served far too long is one of those rare policy objectives: it is the right thing to do to save money. And it is the right thing to do for the sake of justice.