10 things you should know about the London Bridge attacker and “early release”

No time can be afforded in 2019 to respect the dead. Not when there’s an election at stake, and the tantalising prospect of scoring cheap political points winks coyly at you from a special advisor’s email. So it is that, within 24 hours after the killings by Usman Khan at London Bridge, politicians have lined up in descending order of deplorability to exploit the tragedy for their own ends. The Prime Minister obviously went first, leaping in front of Sky cameras last night to claim:

” I have long argued that it is a mistake to let serious and violent criminals out of prison early and it is very important that we get out of that habit and that we enforce the appropriate sentences for dangerous criminals, especially for terrorists that the public want to see.”

This, one presumes, is a nod to his well-publicised manifesto pledges to “toughen up sentences”, although (as we shall see) it is well worth reminding Mr Johnson, as he seems to have forgotten, that absolutely nothing in his manifesto would have made the slightest difference to the sentence or release in a case like that of Usman Khan. There followed a dash to ascribe culpability for the fact that Mr Khan had been released from prison after serving 8 years of a 16 year custodial term for a terrorism offence; it was the Parole Board, then the judges who had passed sentence on Khan, then, somehow, the EU, then, in perhaps Twitter’s lowest moment today, Khan’s blameless lawyers. This afternoon, Labour and Conservative figures took turns to cast blame, each frantically trying to plunge the hands of the other into the victims’ blood before it dried, notwithstanding the pleas of victims’ families not to make political capital out of lost lives.

Amid all the shouting and, in the case of the government, outright lying, the truth about how and why Khan was sentenced as he was has barely had a look in. So it is worth taking a quick look at ten things we actually know.

 

1. What was Usman Khan convicted and sentenced for?

Usman Khan, then aged 20, pleaded guilty on 31st January 2012 to an offence of engaging in conduct in preparation for acts of terrorism, contrary to section 5(1) of the Terrorism Act 2006. This is an offence carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Although widely reported as relating to a plan to bomb the London Stock Exchange, the full facts (reported here) are worth reading, as the reality is more complicated. Khan, then aged 19, was part of a group based in Stoke who in November and December 2010 were engaged in a well-developed plan to raise funds to build a madrassa in Kashmir to train terrorists. While they had contemplated that some of those trained might return to the UK and involve themselves in terrorism, the basis on which they were convicted was that although they had discussed perpetrating a terror act in Stoke, they did not intend to participate in an act of terrorism in the UK in the immediate future. What they did do, however, was liaise with other groups in London and Cardiff, who were actively planning to leave an explosive device in the Stock Exchange. The groups, including Khan, had meetings and discussed common interests, such as how to make a pipe bomb, but by the time of conviction, the prosecution and defence had agreed that the Stoke group were not in fact involved in the Stock Exchange plot, and the guilty pleas that were entered by the various defendants reflected this, as they were pleas to different counts on the indictment.

Nervtheless, Khan was an obviously dangerous individual. He demonstrated “a serious long term attitude to establishing, funding and recruiting British Muslims to attend the madrassa and to then be available to commit terrorism abroad and at home.” And for that reason, on 9th February 2012, he was sentenced as a dangerous offender to detention for public protection (“DPP”) with a minimum custodial term of 8 years (minus time served on remand).

2. What is “detention for public protection”?

Detention for Public Protection (DPP) is a relative of the slightly more famous Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). Someone aged between 18 and 21 is sentenced to detention, rather than imprisonment, but the sentences are substantially the same. They were introduced in 2005, and where a defendant convicted of certain serious offences was assessed by a court as dangerous – meaning they posed a significant risk of serious harm to the public – but the seriousness of the offence they had committed did not justify a life sentence, IPP (or DPP) could be imposed instead. The effect was similar to a life sentence. The Crown Court would set a minimum term (tariff) which a defendant would have to spend in prison. After serving the minimum term, he would have to satisfy the Parole Board that his imprisonment was no longer necessary for the protection of the public. If he did so, he would be released on licence for at least 10 years. If he couldn’t, he would stay in prison until he could, potentially forever.

The minimum term was half of the equivalent sentence that a defendant would have received if he’d been sentenced to a standard determinate sentence. Why half? Because (as we’ll see below), since 2005 defendants serving determinate sentences have been automatically released at the halfway point. So in theory, if a dangerous offender fully rehabilitated himself in prison, he could be out at the same time as if he hadn’t been assessed dangerous in the first place.

So in Khan’s case, the sentencing judge found that, taking into account Khan’s young age and his guilty plea, the appropriate determinate sentence would have been 16 years, meaning the minimum term was 8 years.

3. So why was Khan’s sentence reduced by the Court of Appeal?

As ever, the best explanation is in the full judgment, which I’d urge you to read. Boiling the appeal down to its barest bones, the argument made on behalf of Khan was this. The London defendants – the ones who had planned to bomb the Stock Exchange – were deemed by the sentencing judge to be less dangerous than the Stoke defendants. This was because, although their criminality was, to quote the prosecution, “equally serious”, the Stoke defendants, including Khan, demonstrated a level of sophistication that made them more dangerous. The Court of Appeal, having heard arguments from the prosecution and the appellants, reached the conclusion that the judge was wrong to distinguish between the groups in this way. “If the plans of the two groups were “equally serious”, the risk posed to the public could not be greater from those who were very much further away from realising their apparent goal [the Stoke lot] than those who were far closer to doing so [the London Stock Exchange lot],” in the word of Lord Justice Leveson.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal gave Khan and his Stoke associates the same type of sentence as the London group received – an extended sentence. They disagreed with Khan’s argument that the custodial term of 16 years should be reduced.

4. What is an “Extended Sentence”?

This is where things get messy. Because we have had a lot of versions of Extended Sentences over the past 15 years, as governments have battled to secure headlines by tweaking and amending the various regimes on numerous occasions. The best summary is in this document by the Prison Reform Trust. In simple terms, if a defendant was found to be dangerous (as defined above), and a determinate sentence could not manage his risk, the court had to consider whether an Extended Sentence would do; if not, it would be IPP or life imprisonment. An Extended Sentence involved a custodial term (the same as would have been imposed for the offence for a “normal” defendant), with an extended period of licence of up to 5 years (for a violent offence) or 8 years (for a sexual offence).

So when the Court of Appeal passed an Extended Sentence on Khan, his custodial term was 16 years (as the sentencing judge thought it should be) and his period of extended licence was 5 years (the maximum).

5. When is somebody released from an Extended Sentence?

This is why it’s complicated. Successive governments changed the law governing release on multiple occasions. The full history is in the Prison Reform Trust document above, but suffice to say that in 2012, when Khan was sentenced, prisoners serving Extended Sentences were released automatically at the halfway stage of their custodial term, just like determinate prisoners. It therefore looks as if Khan was automatically released having served 8 years of the 16 year custodial term, and would have been on licence for the remaining 8 years, plus the extension of 5 years.

6. A dangerous offender being released automatically? That doesn’t sound very safe

No. It wasn’t, really. “EPPs” as they were called (Extended Sentences for Public Protection) were introduced alongside IPPs in 2005. Up until 2008, an EPP prisoner would be referred to the Parole Board at the halfway point of their custodial term. If they satisfied the Parole Board that their imprisonment was no longer necessary, they would be released on licence. If not, they would serve the full custodial term. In 2008, the law changed so that at the halfway point offenders were automatically released – no Parole Board input. This was in large part because the way in which the existing legislation required courts to treat dangerous offenders meant that the prison population had spiralled to uncontrollable levels. People were being given IPPs for relatively minor offences and finding themselves stuck in prison years after their minimum terms had expired. The prisons were unable to provide the courses that dangerous offenders needed to satisfy the Parole Board that their risk had reduced, and so many EPP prisoners were serving their full terms. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 tweaked the law to give judges greater discretion as to when to pass an IPP, and also sought to introduce a release valve by automatically releasing EPP prisoners.

As for why we have automatic release at all, it’s worth addressing this briefly, as there remains an understandable public bugbear when it comes to the concept of automatic release at the halfway stage of a prison sentence. I’ve written about this in my book. The public hear or read “10 years”, and feel justifiably deceived when they discover that 10 means 5 (minus any time already served on remand awaiting trial or sentence). There are various reasons as to why we grant automatic release halfway through a sentence. One reason is that this mechanism saves the government money, gifting them the tabloid headlines of long prison sentences without the Treasury having to actually pay for them. Less cynically, it is also argued that it helps reintegrate prisoners into society and aids rehabilitation. If they reoffend on licence, or breach the conditions of their licence, they can be recalled to serve the remainder of their sentence. Automatic early release has varied throughout the years. The Conservatives in 1991 introduced the framework for the modern system, but it was in 2005 that the Labour government introduced automatic halfway release for all determinate sentences (as well as the IPP and EPP sentences) – more detail here. Worth remembering whenever one party accuses the other of being to “blame” for automatic release that all parties have at one time or another thought it a jolly good idea.

7. So at the time Khan was sentenced to an EPP, he would have been eligible for automatic release with no Parole Board oversight?

This now becomes even messier, because Khan’s appeal was heard after EPPs had been replaced by EDS, albeit he was originally sentenced when EPPs were in force. The Parole Board has emphasised that it had no part to play, but there has been much confusion over this, due in part to the BBC’s decision in its 2013 news report of the appeal to quote a part of the judgment completely out of context. The BBC reported this:

“Lord Justice Leveson said: “There is no doubt that anyone convicted of this type of offence could legitimately be considered dangerous.

“There is an argument for concluding that anyone convicted of such an offence should be incentivised to demonstrate that he can safely be released; such a decision is then better left to the Parole Board for consideration proximate in time to the date when release becomes possible.””

This sounds very much as if Leveson LJ is imposing a sentence that involves the Parole Board, right? Well put in its proper context, my interpretation is that, to the contrary, he was simply weighing up the competing arguments before concluding that an EPP, even though it meant automatic release, was appropriate:

Dealing first with the question of dangerousness, at the time that these appellants were sentenced, in our judgment there is no doubt that anyone convicted of this type of offence could legitimately be considered dangerous within the meaning of the legislation: that includes Hussain and Latif to whom we refer below. Furthermore, given that it is difficult to identify the extent to which those who have been radicalised (perhaps as a result of immaturity or otherwise) will have modified their views having served a substantial term of imprisonment and there is an argument for concluding that anyone convicted of such an offence should be incentivised to demonstrate that he can safely be released; such a decision is then better left to the parole board for consideration proximate in time to the date when release becomes possible.

On the other hand, the extent to which the evidence demonstrated that the threat of a terrorist attack had progressed beyond talk (however apparently determined) is relevant to the risk posed by the offender and the need to protect the public. The judge certainly concluded that the London planning had not progressed so far as to demonstrate such a risk that imprisonment for public protection was necessary and although we recognise that training terrorists in the use of firearms could only lead to potential loss of life, whereas the intention of the London defendants did not encompass death or serious injury (while recognising the serious risk that such would result), on any showing, the fulfilment of that goal was further removed and there were other obstacles (not least as a consequence of the fact that their activities had come to the attention of the security services in Pakistan). Furthermore, there is no suggestion that any of the Stoke defendants had, in fact, been trained, let alone that they would be in a position to activate, operate or participate within a training facility not then built, however keen they might have been to do so and however much they might have talked up their prospects between themselves or to others whom they sought to influence.

Notwithstanding the considerable respect that the conclusion reached by Wilkie J merits, we have come to the conclusion that if, as he concluded, the plans of the two groups were “equally serious”, the risk posed to the public could not be greater from those who were very much further away from realising their apparent goal than those who were far closer to doing so.

So it appears as if the Court of Appeal understood that it was imposing an old-style EPP, which makes sense given that the Court of Appeal’s powers on allowing an appeal against sentence are to “pass such sentence or make such order as they think appropriate for the case and as the court below had power to pass or make when dealing with him for the offence. This would have meant that the Court of Appeal imposed the same type of old-style Extended Sentence as was passed on the London co-defendants, and that therefore, as it has confirmed, the Parole Board had no role to play in Khan’s release.

8. Are dangerous offenders still automatically released at the halfway stage of their sentence?

A lot has changed since 2008. IPPs have now gone. The failure of the prison system to make available to prisoners the rehabilitative programmes they needed to take to secure their release, due to the horrendous overcrowding, was a genuine Kafkaesque nightmare, which the European Court of Human Rights in 2012 declared was unlawful.  The coalition government responded by abolishing IPPs in 2012 (although not for prisoners still serving those sentences), and introducing new Extended Determinate Sentences. It is worth emphasising, to rebut nonsense published by Breitbart contributors today, that the ECtHR ruling on IPPs had nothing whatsoever to do with the Court of Appeal decision in Khan’s case. The Court of Appeal could have lawfully upheld the IPP if it wanted. It was not forced, either by government or by the ECtHR, to change the sentence.

These new Extended Determinate Sentences (EDS) worked like old EPPs, except that you would be automatically released at the two thirds stage of your sentence if your custodial term was under 10 years, and would go before the Parole Board at the two thirds stage if your custodial term was 10 years or more or you were convicted of certain specified offences.

9. So the coalition government were still automatically releasing dangerous offenders?

Yes. They were being kept in for slightly longer, but there was still no Parole Board oversight, except for the most dangerous of dangerous offenders. This changed in 2015, when all EDS prisoners were required to secure Parole Board approval for release at the two thirds stage. That remains the position today.

10. What is the government proposing to do?

To listen to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, plenty. To read his manifesto, nothing. The changes that are proposed to release provisions relate specifically to offenders who do not receive EDS – the government wants to make it so that a tiny handful of defendants who are possibly a bit-sort-of-dangerous-but-maybe-not will serve two thirds of their sentence before automatic release. So they are not proposing to introduce any further Parole Board oversight of these prisoners – simply to keep them in a bit longer so that Johnson can boast about increasing sentences.

Much of what has been said today by government ministers is completely false. Priti Patel claimed:

This is a lie. The courts had several options to deal with “dangerous terrorists” that would have avoided automatic release. The reason for Khan’s sentence was that the Court of Appeal ruled (to be proved tragically wrong) that Khan’s risk did not require the input of the Parole Board that an IPP would have guaranteed.

Brandon Lewis said, in response to Yvette Cooper getting bogged down in confusion over Leveson’s comment about the Parole Board:

This is a lie. Nowhere has the government proposed in its manifesto to “ensure that people serve their full term”. Likewise Ms Cooper spread misinformation when she suggested that the government’s 2012 reforms had a bearing on the sentence. This, as we’ve seen, is simply untrue.

And, of course, the Prime Minister:

Repeating Lewis’ claim, if this is something Johnson has “long said”, one might ask why ensuring defendants serve the full term of their sentence is not mentioned in the manifesto. If this is such an obvious failing, why not promise to remedy it? Heaven forfend this is ad-hoc, evidence-free electioneering.

11. So where does the blame lie?

Blame is rarely helpful, as with almost all of these cases, the tragedy is multi-causal. Labour introduced automatic release for EPP prisoners in response to its own prisons crisis (caused by its own “tough on crime” rhetoric), but the Coalition government was responsible for the statutory regime at the time of Khan’s case. It’s nonsense to suggest that Labour’s changes in 2005 prevented judges from passing adequate sentences on dangerous offenders; for one, the government had plenty of time until 2012 to amend the sentencing regime it inherited from Labour if it considered it to be so inadequate. The Court of Appeal finds itself in the unusual position of being criticised for being too lenient; almost every criminal law practitioner would tell you that the Court of Appeal is (in)famous for its reluctance to interfere with convictions and sentences, finding sometimes ingenious/disingenuous ways of upholding Crown Court decisions. The judgment appears well-reasoned given the known facts, but hindsight casts it in obvious doubt. For what it’s worth, the Sentencing Guidelines that now exist for terror offences would, on my interpretation of the facts, be likely to lead to a life sentence for Khan were he being sentenced today. And something that has been missed is that since 2015 nobody imprisoned for a terrorism offence is automatically released; in the unlikely event that he is not sentenced to EDS or life imprisonment, the court is required to order him “an offender of particular concern”, meaning that at the halfway point of his sentence he has to apply to the Parole Board for release.

Perhaps the focus, rather than on “tougher sentences”, ought be trained a little closer to the less tabloid-friendly dimension of criminal justice: Prisons and probation have been ravaged by huge cuts and disastrous reforms, meaning that Khan would have likely received little meaningful rehabilitation while in custody. If I were directing an inquest, I’d start there.

***

UPDATE: Overnight, the Prime Minister’s posturing has crystallised into hastily scrawled new policies, announced in op-eds in the Sunday tabloids repeating various untruths dealt with above, including falsely suggesting that we still have the same system as in 2008 and claiming that he has been talking about “abolishing automatic early release” for “four months”, despite not devoting a single word to this is his manifesto, nor making any effort to include this change in the recently enacted Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, a flagship piece of anti-terror legislation which focussed specifically on sentencing for terrorism offences. He also claimed, with characteristic fidelity to accuracy, that Khan was “sentenced 11 years ago”. Anyway, the overnight brainwave will apparently now herald a minimum 14 year sentence for defendants convicted of (unspecified) terrorism offences, with a suggestion that they will be required to “serve every day of their sentence, with no exceptions.”

As this is likely to run and run today, forgive me if I repeat this: In 2019, no terrorist sentenced to a term of imprisonment is subject to automatic early release. The Prime Minister’s attempts to suggest that we have the same system as applied at the time of Usman Khan’s sentence, and that he is the man to fix it, are dishonest, cynical and exploitative.