12:36, March 29 121 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-29 12:36:14
The Worboys fiasco shows the absurdity of indeterminate sentences

Sir Brian Leveson and his judicial colleagues were right to overturn the Parole Board’s decision that serial sex offender John Worboys should be released from jail. But whether the board’s chair, Nick Hardwick, should have been forced to resign by the justice secretary, David Gauke, is another matter entirely.

It could be said that Hardwick has become the final victim of indeterminate sentences for public protection, a form of sentencing so discredited that it was rejected six years ago by the European court of justice. Despite this, more than 3,000 people are still serving IPPs (imprisonment for public protection) – the most notorious of whom is Worboys.

Yes, the three-member Parole Board panel made mistakes – it should have insisted on documentation that was missing (such as the prosecution’s opening statement), although it was the Ministry of Justice’s responsibility to provide it. The high court also ruled that the panel should have taken into consideration the multiple offences Worboys was alleged to have committed – though it is equally valid to argue that Worboys was not even charged on those counts, never mind convicted.

The Parole Board seemed too quick to accept at face value Worboys’s professed rehabilitation, not least because for six years after his conviction he continued to protest his innocence. Perhaps Hardwick, who never interfered with individual panel decisions, should have had the foresight (or self-interest) to do so in this case. He must have known there would be an uproar when it was announced that Worboys would be released.

But ultimately the major failings in this case are down to the Metropolitan police and the Crown Prosecution Service – and perhaps most of all the nature of the sentence Worboys received in the first place. Although the police and the CPS believed Worboys was guilty of more than 100 sexual offences, he was only faced 19 specimen charges – one count of rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted assault and 12 drugging charges. This should have never been allowed to happen.

Q&A

What is the Parole Board?

The Parole Board is an independent body that carries out risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether they can be safely released into the community.

It manages the early release of prisoners serving fixed-length sentences of four years or more; the release of prisoners who are serving life sentences or indeterminate sentences for public protection; and the re-release of prisoners who have been given life or indeterminate sentences and were then re-imprisoned.

Some prisoners seeking release may have to attend a hearing before Parole Board members.

Up to three members of a panel will decide whether to release the prisoner based on a file of documents including information on the inmate’s behaviour in prison, their plans once released and risk of committing further crimes. Medical, psychiatric and psychological evidence can also be heard.

As well as the prisoner, a solicitor, psychologist and witnesses could attend. The victim of the prisoner’s offences may also be present.

The Parole Board has 234 members who make the assessments and decisions and employs 120 members of staff to support them.

To compensate for an elemental failure of the judicial system, Worboys was then given an indeterminate sentence – a minimum of eight years, but he could be kept in as long as the Parole Board felt necessary. Mr Justice Penry-Davey said Worboys would not be released until the Parole Poard decided he no longer represented a threat to women.

IPP was introduced in 2003. It was intended to protect the public against criminals whose crimes were not serious enough to merit a normal life sentence but who were regarded as too dangerous to be released when the term of their original sentence had expired. But as a sentence it never made sense. If a crime is not serious enough to merit a life sentence, it is not serious enough to merit a life sentence. End of.

The CPS even wrote to Worboys’ victims in 2009 to tell them that the black-cab rapist’s indeterminate sentence was in effect a life sentence. Victims were told: “An indeterminate sentence is a new sentence that has been introduced only a few years ago. To all intents and purposes, it is a sentence of life imprisonment.” It wasn’t – and nor should it ever have been. This statement was disingenuous and misleading. The IPP was, as stated, for the public’s protection – so long as Worboys had served his tariff, as soon as the Parole Board considered he was no longer a risk, he could be released.

At IPP’s height in 2012, there were 6,100 people in England and Wales serving indeterminate sentences. By the time Hardwick took over the Parole Board in 2016, that number had fallen to 3,900 and he was determined to get it down to 2,000 by 2020.

Sure enough, Worboys did eventually admit his guilt, did his courses and was a “model” prisoner. Indeed, the Parole Board could argue that it had exercised caution in keeping him two years longer than his minimum tariff.

Hardwick, an effective former chief inspector of prisons, is a decent man who has always placed the issue of fairness at the heart of his work. As both head of the Parole Board and chief inspector of prisons he consistently condemned IPP as unjust.

At the other extreme from Worboys, and equally problematic, are prisoners with tariffs of two years or less for minor crimes who were given IPP sentences – usually because of their chaotic lives. IPP was ended as far back as 2008 for prisoners serving less than two years, but in 2017 more than 750 prisoners were still locked up on IPPs with tariffs of less than two years.

Drug addict Charlotte Nokes was 30 when she was sentenced to a minimum of 16 months in prison and given an IPP. She had been begging outside a corner shop and when a woman refused to give her money she brought out a knife. She did not attempt to stab the woman but she did terrify her. Nine years later, in July 2016, she died in prison.

James Ward was jailed for 10 months but spent 11 years in jail after being given an IPP for setting fire to his bed. His family had made repeated pleas to the Parole Board to release him on the grounds of his repeated self-harm and mental health problems, but their requests were refused. When the then justice secretary Kenneth Clarke scrapped IPPs in 2012, he called them a “stain” on the judicial system.

How can thousands of prisoners still be serving time under a sentence long vanquished? Those who pose no threat, and should have been free long ago, must be released instantly. Those who have not served their tariff should do so knowing that, with good behaviour, they will be released when it is up. As for Worboys, he should be tried for the crimes he is alleged to be guilty of, and if convicted appropriately, resentenced (though he would now argue it’s impossible for him to get a fair hearing). Indeterminate sentencing never had a place in a democracy.

Although indeterminate sentences were withdrawn six years ago, they are still blighting thousands of lives in England and Wales. It is bitterly ironic that a sentence the chair of the Parole Board regarded as unjust has been responsible for one more major injustice – his sacking.

Eric Allison is the Guardian’s prisons correspondent. Simon Hattenstone is a Guardian writer

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