12:24, December 06 316 0 theguardian.com

2019-12-06 12:24:04
Joseph McCann case is about the system not the sentence

The offences committed by Joseph McCann are among some of the most horrific imaginable. His many victims and their families – left with the lifelong consequences of his barbaric actions – will rightfully want answers as to how he was free to commit them.

McCann was jailed in 2008 for aggravated burglary – a violent offence – under an imprisonment for public protection sentence. IPPs were introduced by the Labour government in the mid-2000s and were designed to protect the public from serious offenders whose crimes did not merit a life sentence.

Offenders sentenced to an IPP are set a minimum term, referred to as a tariff, which they must spend in prison. In McCann’s case this was two and a half years. There is no maximum cap on the term, rather, the offender can only be released once the Parole Board assesses them as fit to do so. Once released, they are managed in the community for at least 10 years – an extensive licence period.

In McCann’s case he was released on licence after 10 years in jail. He reoffended – committing the relatively low-level crime of burglary – but should have been recalled to prison under the terms of his IPP. He was not. Instead, he was handed a fresh sentence, a determinate one with a fixed period and an automatic release at the midway point. It was after this release with no Parole Board assessment that McCann went on to commit his latest string of horrifying sexual offences.

The complexities of his sentencing history obscure a simple point: that the key issue is not about McCann’s initial sentencing, but about its management. Who missed the existing IPP sentence, and why?

On licence after his first release in 2017, McCann would have been supervised in the community primarily by the publicly run National Probation Service. The NPS should have known McCann was on an IPP licence when he was convicted for burglary.

This could have been down to human error. But such an error would have occurred within a probation sector that is in crisis. The Ministry of Justice has had its budget slashed by 40% in real terms since 2010 – one of the biggest departmental cuts across government. The service came under more pressure in 2014 when the then justice secretary sliced it up into a public body and 21 privatised companies. Since Chris Grayling’s disastrous overhaul, it has been hit with a slew of damning reports from the inspectorate, the justice select committee, workers and academics.

The annual report of the chief inspector of probation found that the pressures across the NPS were felt most keenly at probation officer level, where staff shortages are greatest.

The NPS position varies at local level, but the inspectorate found probation officer workloads at 120% to 160% capacity.

A recent inspection report of the south-east and eastern division, which was responsible for McCann’s supervision, was damning. The inspectorate found the division had “significant staff shortages” and the highest workload of the NPS’s seven divisions.

With a shortfall of 102 probation officers at the time of the inspection, the inspectors found it should be a recruitment priority for the Ministry of Justice; more than half of the responsible officers interviewed reported that their workloads were unmanageable.

It is the second time in a fortnight that the impact of austerity on the management of offenders has come under the spotlight after it emerged that the London Bridge terrorist, Usman Khan, was out on licence from an earlier terrorism conviction.

Other bodies should have been aware of McCann’s IPP terms – the police, the prison service and the courts that sentenced him, although the courts would have relied on the input of the other agencies.

The point is that if McCann had been recalled on his IPP licence – rather than sentenced anew – he would have only been released again with the involvement of the Parole Board, which might have picked up on his increasingly violent tendencies.

McCann would probably have been released again at some point regardless, but if he had been recalled under the IPP terms, he may have failed further Parole Board assessments and would still be in prison to this day.

But, likewise, he could have gone on to pass those assessments as he had done in the past. At that stage in McCann’s life, he had no convictions for sexual offending.

This case might lead to calls to reintroduce the IPP sentence, which was abolished in 2012. But this would be resisted, even in the face of such an egregious case as McCann’s.

Justice officials had only intended the sentence to be used in the hundreds, but thousands were handed out, in some cases for low-level crimes. There have been examples of people sentenced to an IPP for offences such as attempting to steal a mobile phone spending more than 10 years in jail, long after their minimum tariffs ended.

There are 2,223 people serving IPP sentences who have yet to be released, and a further 1,206 who are back in prison having been recalled while on licence. Despite its abolition in 2012, 93% of IPP offenders are still in prison, their tariff date having expired.

The other policy at play here is McCann’s automatic release. But it must be remembered this related to a sentence for burglary.

Boris Johnson has pledged to scrap automatic release at the midway point – but these proposed reforms would not apply in McCann’s case. Under Johnson’s changes, some serious sexual and violent offenders would become eligible for parole assessment at the two-thirds point of a sentence.

Mistakes were made in the McCann case that had a profound impact on the fates of his victims. But had they not been made, he still could have eventually gone on to reoffend. How, where and against whom, we will never know.