Does Justice have a Price?

A rather superior judge once told me that justice has no price.  I was grumbling at the time about the poor value provided by the Crown Prosecution Service and the crime universities otherwise known as prisons. A classic example of this indifference was provided last week by a House of Commons Justice Committee report addressing sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs).

In 2005, the government decided that dangerous violent and sexual offenders should remain in jail until the Parole Board decided otherwise. In 2012, the Coalition government decided otherwise: IPPs were “not defensible” and were abolished. Except, with the logic peculiar to Westminster, they were retained for prisoners already incarcerated. Lord McNally, speaking for the government, gave the Alice in Wonderland defence that “lawfully imposed” sentences could not be altered simply because they had been shown to be wrong: “At the end of March 2019 there were still around 2,400 prisoners serving IPPs.”

“Across England and Wales, it cost an average of £37,543 a year to keep a prisoner in jail last year [2018]. That was up 6.1% from £35,271 in 2016/17.” In other words, it is costing the taxpayer over £90M to keep people in prison who, on the governments own reckoning, should not be there. With this attitude it is not surprising that our prisons are overcrowded and too expensive.

Back in September 2008, the Chief Inspector of Prisons made a damning report on IPPs: “There are now nearly 8,000 more prisoners in the system than the average for 2005. (…) It led to IPP prisoners languishing in local prisons for months and years, unable to access the interventions they would need before the expiry of their often short tariffs. A belated decision to move them to training prisons, without any additional resources and sometimes to one which did not offer relevant programmes, merely transferred the problem. By December 2007, when there were 3,700 IPP prisoners, it was estimated that 13% were over tariff [i.e. had already served the conventional term]. As a consequence, the Court of Appeal found that the Secretary of State had acted unlawfully.”

Government was not wholly to blame: the judiciary had responded to IPPs with such enthusiasm that they were handing them out to offenders who would otherwise have merited only short sentences. It should have been clear from the original intent that IPPs were to be used only for those few who did not quite justify life sentences.

Also in 2008, the House of Commons Justice Committee recognised that this created a Catch 22: those who should have been on short sentences did not have the time or assistance in jail to make their cases to the Parole Board and were therefore never let out.

The National Audit Office drew attention to this problem in 2013 and 2017.

This nonsense should have been resolved ten years ago and yet Justice Ministry continues to fail. Bureaucracy and indifference to value for money lie at the heart of the problem. Furthermore ambiguity and unfairness undermines deterrence. Whether government or the judiciary are to blame for the original muddle over IPP sentences is debatable but the Justice Ministry is certainly responsible for the continuing waste of prisoners’ lives, the waste of taxpayers’ money and ambiguity about how, if ever, IPP prisoners will be given the support to which they are entitled and, where appropriate, be allowed out of jail.

The 2019 Justice Committee’s Report cited above concludes on page 20: “Of IPP prisoners who have never been released, the majority (91% at the latest count) have passed their tariff expiry date. Of these, around two thirds (64%) were more than 5 years over the expiry of their original tariff length. One in five (20%) of those who were over their tariff length were over it by 8 years or more.”

The inability of prisoners to be released is in marked contrast to the speed with which Justice Secretaries leave the Ministry. After Chris Grayling served three years, we have had four in little more than four years. None of them, it would appear, considered that long enough to redress this obvious injustice and thereby enhance taxpayer value. Prompt justice costs less.