Given that I am an indeterminate sentenced prisoner who feels failed by ‘the system’ and kept in prison far longer than necessary it may come to your surprise that I actually support the existence of indeterminate sentences and, in fact, think that there should be far more of them. Here is how such sentences run now, and how I’d like to see them run.
(1) At present prisoners who are found guilty are given either a determinate sentence or an indeterminate one. If they are given a determinate sentence they have a set date upon which their sentence expires and beyond which they cannot be kept in prison. They may get out before this date (such as on parole), but they know they are getting out eventually even if they refuse to engage in any rehabilitation. Meanwhile, indeterminate prisoners (with the exception of those given a whole life term) are given a tariff. Whether they are given a Life sentence or an IPP (as was), the tariff is the minimum time they must serve until they can begin to apply for parole. In my case the tariff was under 3 years, in other cases I’ve known it to be as high as 30 or more. It all depends on the seriousness of the crime and any exacerbating or mitigating factors. What I’d like to see is more use of indeterminate sentences to the point where, no matter what you are locked up for, you will not be released until you have been rehabilitated. That means that all prisoners would need to receive indeterminate sentences.
(2) I’ve written before about the futile efforts of the prison service to both punish prisoners and rehabilitate them at the, same time. The fact is, you can’t do this. It doesn’t work. It is like trying to build a house whilst in process of demolishing one that already stands on the same spot. If you want to punish, to demolish the house, that is fine. But don’t try to rehabilitate and to build a new house at the same time. Rebuilding can only come once the demolition is over. Rehabilitation can only work after the punishment has ended. That’s why I’d like to see the indeterminate sentence being clearly separated into two phases (as it was originally intended to be). The first phase is the tariff and, whether this is 3 years or 30 years, it should be tough. This is the punitive stage where the prisoner is punished. However, once this phase is over the prisoner should progress to the rehabilitative phase where they are eligible for parole and are given access to the relevant work to show that they are worthy of it.
(3) As it stands there is a conflict within the justice system. Prisoners are only given access to work that the prison service is willing to give them, but it is the parole board who determine whether the prisoner is fit for release yet. In many cases (including my own) the prison service have insisted on one form of work over any other whilst the parole board have disagreed and stated that the prisoner must do something else entirely before they can be released. The Parole Board tell you to do A and B, The prison service refuses to let you do A and B, pushing you to do X and Y instead, but the Parole Board still refuse to release you because you haven’t done A and B yet. Meanwhile, you’re the one stuck in the middle of the warring factions. Under the system I’d like to see it would be for the parole board to order (not recommend but order) what rehabilitative work should be offered to the prisoner. It should then be the prison service’s responsibility to ensure that this work is made available. It should not be possible for a prisoner to be lost in the system because these two groups cannot agree.
(4) Prisoners are not released by the parole board until they are deemed to be of a low enough risk of reoffending to justify this. The assessment of risk is made by prison and probation staff who then make recommendations to the Parole Board who make the final decision. It is too easy for prison and probation staff to claim that the prisoner remains high risk simply due to an absence of evidence one way or the other. The burden of proof is almost always put upon the prisoner to prove that they have addressed this risk and they are reliant upon opportunities given by the prison service to do this. When the prison service fails to give a prisoner those opportunities it is the prisoner who suffers because they can do nothing to prove that they are ready for release. I’d like to see a system where the burden of proof is reversed. Since the power to give or to withhold those opportunities rests with the prison service, and the prison service has far more resources than any one prisoner, it should be for prison and probation staff to prove their assessment of risk with evidence. An absence of information should not be enough of a reason to keep someone in prison. The presumption must be that the prisoner has addressed their risk unless there is something that shows this is not the case. That way, if the prison service fails to provide the rehabilitative work that was ordered by the parole board the prisoner will be released because this is no fault of theirs, but if a prisoner refuses to undertake that work despite being offered the chance to do it, they will remain in prison.
These things may only be my own opinion, but I am convinced that, if they were taken up, opportunities for prisoners to rehabilitate themselves would be more forthcoming and more often accepted by the prisoner, that rehabilitation would be more successful, rates of release on parole would increase, the prison population would go down, and (due to the increased success of rehabilitative efforts) rates of crime and reoffending would decrease rapidly. Under this system both prisons and the public in general would be far safer.