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The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in the case of James, Wells, and Lee v. United Kingdom that indeterminate imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences without adequate avenues for release violate prisoners’ rights to liberty and security.

In a Chamber decision issued September 18, 2012, the Court held that the United Kingdom breached Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights protection for the right to liberty and security but that an additional claim for a lack of speedy decisions on detainment was already covered in the first claim. The Court’s decision relied on a finding that prisoners serving IPP sentences were not afforded real opportunities for rehabilitation. The Court ruled that because the delays were due to a lack of resources that made such opportunities unattainable, the plaintiffs were being arbitrarily detained.

In place since 2

005, these sentences are intended for cases where a British court determined that an offender needed to be held until there was no longer a threat to the general public. James, Wells, and Lee were convicted of violent crimes. When their minimum sentences, or “tariffs,” expire, their sentences stipulate that they must prove to a Parole Board that they are no longer a danger to society by participating in rehabilitation programs before they can be released. The IPP program has grown beyond original expectations; there are currently more than 6,000 IPP prisoners. This strain on resources means that many prisoners are unable to access the rehabilitation programs. In the case before the ECtHR, one of the inmates had been unable to access the programs for 25 months after his tariff expired.

Although the ruling comes amidst conflict between the United Kingdom and the ECtHR, the ruling is somewhat limited because the British government announced in 2011 that it would end new IPP sentences in favor of more severe determinate sentences. However, with courts still issuing IPPs and more offenders receiving life or other longer sentences, the government does not yet have a strategy for how it will deal with the 3,500 IPP inmates being held beyond their tariffs. The ECtHR case law reflects concern for indeterminate or arbitrary detention in places such as Russia, Cyprus, Georgia, and Iceland. The United Kingdom decision highlights the role that a lack of resources in some European prisons can contribute to such violations. With Italian prisons at 22,000 over capacity, and French prisons are overcrowded as well, the reasoning behind the Court’s decision could have a wider reach.