Imprisonment for Public Protection: Indefinite Detention for Petty Crimes

by Project Censored

In 2005 the then Home Secretary of England, David Blunkett, led the charge for what has been called “one of the least carefully planned and implemented pieces of legislation in the history of British sentencing.”  The sentence known as Imprisonment for Public Protection, or “IPP” is an indefinite sentence that is based on the prisoners’ being required to take classes and perform arduous tasks in order to prove themselves ready to be introduced back into society.

Originally designed as a way to lengthen sentences for dangerous and violent criminals, the IPP has been mostly used for less serious crimes.  Judges sentenced thousands of people per year to IPP as opposed to the few hundred it was intended for.  In 2012 the IPP was taken down by former Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke.  Unfortunately for those already serving at the time, Clarke neglected to make the reform retroactive meaning that as of June 2012 there were over six-thousand inmates still being forced to serve sentences multiple times longer than what they were given and required to switch prisons in order to take certain classes in order to prove to the parole board that it was safe to green-light their release.

Not only was the reform not retroactive, but the legislation to abolish IPP has not been activated.  As of 2015, English judges are still handing out IPPs.  In addition to the limbo of IPP, some prisoners have to wait years, sometimes waiting longer than their original sentence, to switch prisons and take the required courses.  Former Chief Inspector of Prisons Baron Ramsbotham has been following the IPP saga from the start and he states “people are supposed to earn their way out of jail but the courses they need to take simply do not exist.  The burden of proof should be changed so it is the parole’s job to prove the prisoner is still at risk, rather than the prisoner’s job to prove they’re not.  If they’re no longer a risk, and they are over tariff, they should be released without delay.”


Costello, Tom. “A Stain on the Law: Imprisonment for Public Protection Exposed | The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. N.p., 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2015. <>.

Student Researcher:  Ian Schellenberg, Indian River State College

Faculty Evaluator:  Elliot D. Cohen, PhD, Indian River State College

Ethics Alert

As of 2015, English judges are sentencing convicts to Imprisonment for Public Protection, or IPP.  Although on paper it a fantastic idea, judges are needlessly using IPPs on less dangerous criminals such as petty thieves and drug users as opposed to the dangerous and violent criminals for which the program was intended.  IPPs are a type of indeterminate sentence that require convicts to take classes and prove to the parole board that they are ready to be reintroduced back into society.  Most of the time these classes have waiting times of up to two or three years, and in many cases requiring prisons to hold these people in limbo for more time than the original sentence.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant would have disagreed with the fact that there are no requirements necessary for a judge to sentence a person to an IPP.  According to Kant, for an action to be morally permissible, it must be able to be applied to all people without contradiction. However, without necessary requirements, there will be contradictions in the sentencing process. Kantian ethics are also based on the view that the only intrinsically good thing is a good will.  These English judges believe that what they are doing by sentencing convicts to IPPs is best for the recovery of the convict and safest for society, however the groundless IPP sentencing process, wherein a petty thief may receive an IPP sentence over a dangerous criminal renders this motive defective from a Kantian viewpoint.

From a Utilitarian perspective however, IPPs are one of the worst things for the country. Defined as pleasure, economic well-being, and the lack of suffering among other things utility is not something that is maximized by sentencing petty criminals to IPPs.  As of 2015 over six thousand inmates are still imprisoned past their release date due to IPPs.  Although many of these sentences do match the gravity of the crime, most of these IPP’s are disproportional to the crime committed and the danger to society the person presents.  By keeping all of these extra prisoners for extra time the country of England is forced to house and feed them; this is an expense that could easily be avoided.  The prison system is also having to create extra classes and hire extra teachers to match the demand for rehabilitation classes; something that is still unorganized and over-taxed.

The extended suffering of the families of these IPP “hostages” is something that Jeremy Bentham would have seen as disproportionate to his Hedonic Calculus.  The physical suffering added to the emotional suffering caused by long duration of the prison sentence and time away from loved ones is not equal to the pleasure, or good of society, caused by the IPP.  Bentham’s “Theory of Legislation” can also be used in this instance.  Bentham asks: “can it be possible to compare the good [a] thief acquires for himself, with the evil [a] rich man suffers?”  The answer for this question varies on a case by case basis but for the most part the risk taken by using a standard sentence is not worth the government money and individual suffering created by IPPs.

Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill states that “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.”  By keeping the inmates longer than required, the English jail system is denying these inmates one of the greatest pleasures of all, freedom.  The jail system is confusing quality for quantity by not further organizing the rehabilitation system and instead slowly pushing the inmates through the currently under-prepared rehab classes.

The sentencing of IPPs was technically abolished in 2012 but the legislation has still not been activated, meaning that judges are still able to hand out unnecessary IPP’s.  In addition to not being fully abolished, the abolishment of IPPs was not made retroactive.  The IPP prisoners that had and have since finished their initial tariff are still being required to prove their rehabilitation has been successful in order for them to be released.  The consequence is that these excess expenses are wasteful and unnecessary and do not maximize utility at all.

Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences are, by definition, for the greater good of the people.  However, while the program may have been well intended, the unregulated use of IPPs causes a strain on society, government, and individual citizens.  IPPs do not in any way maximize utility and the current system is a waste of resources.  Former Chief Inspector of Prisons Baron Ramsbotham put it well when he said “The IPP is an expensive menace, people are supposed to earn their way out of jail but the courses they need to take simply don’t exist. The burden of proof should be changed so it is the parole board’s job to prove the prisoner is still a risk, rather than the prisoner’s job to prove they’re not. If they’re no longer a risk, and they are over tariff, they should be released without delay.”