The automatic life sentence, with which it shares many similarities, has received a lot less attention writes Francesca Cooney, Advice and Information Manager at the Prison Reform Trust.
The automatic life sentence came into force in 1997 and was taken off the law books in April 2005, to be replaced by the IPP sentence. The sentence meant that unless there were exceptional circumstances, the courts had to give out a life sentence to anyone convicted for the second time of one of eleven very serious offences. It is often referred to as the ‘ two strike sentence’.
The automatic life sentence is, in part, responsible for the growth in the lifer population. We don’t have exact figures but we believe there are around 1000 automatic life sentenced prisoners in the prison system at the moment. Some of these have very short tariffs - around 280 have a tariff of less than two years and there are some with tariffs under a year.
The number of life sentenced prisoners in England and Wales is extremely high - in June last year (latest available figures) we had 7,316 people in total serving a life sentence. This is more than in France, Germany and Turkey combined. This does not include the additional 6,200 people on IPPs.
The lifer system was really designed to cope with people serving ten years or more. The length of courses, assessments, yearly reviews and resettlement schemes were based on the needs of a very long sentence. We know that the parole process alone takes at least six months and often longer.
The difficulties that the prison service has faced trying to cope with IPPs have led to a review of the way indeterminate prisoners are managed. In July this year, a number of changes were made to sentence planning for indeterminately sentenced prisoners. These will hopefully help automatic life sentence prisoners to progress.
The sentence plan is now supposed to cover both work while in prison and in the community. It is also supposed to focus on all kinds of interventions and not just offending behaviour programmes as a way of reducing risk. The main aim of the sentence plan is to meet the individuals' needs and help them to reduce their risk of harm.
The lifer system has also been changed so that there are no longer fixed ‘stages’ to progress through. It is hoped that this more flexible approach to the sentence will see less people becoming stuck in the system. These changes are obviously very new and we don’t know how they will work out yet. It is important that the funding for interventions is available if indeterminate sentence prisoners are going to have the opportunities to access the interventions they need to make progress.
Some of the concerns that the Prison Reform Trust has about IPP sentences are also true for life sentences. The prison service and parole board will need sufficient resources if they are going to be able to operate release from the sentence in an effective and fair way.
*Francesca Cooney can be contacted at the Prison Reform Trust, Freepost ND6125 London EC1B 1PN. Their information line: 0808 802 0060 is open Mondays 3.30-7.30pm and Tuesdays and Thursdays 3.30-5.30pm. They can give you advice and information about prison life and your rights in prison. They are not solicitors and cannot give you legal advice.