Euro Court: Indeterminate Sentences Breach Human Rights

In a landmark human rights decision, the European Court of Human Rights held that jailing offenders indefinitely without providing proper access to rehabilitation courses is a breach of human rights.

In England and Wales there are over 6,000 prisoners who have indeterminate “tariffs,” or sentences.  These offenders serve a minimum jail term set by a judge after which they may apply to a Parole Board for release.  However, the Parole Board will only approve the inmate for release if it regards them as “safe to join the community”—a subjective test at best.  These sentences, proposed by England’s Labour Party in 2003, were designed to keep individuals considered threats to the public in prison until they were “rehabilitated.”  However, a lack of resources kept many prisoners from receiving any treatment during their time in prison.

After several prisoners filed suit, European Court of Human Rights Judges stated that the inadequate resources “appeared to be the consequence of the introduction of draconian measures for indeterminate detention without the necessary planning and without realistic consideration for the impact of the measures.”  In the case of the claimants, the length of the delays left them in prisons without the necessary programs for nearly two and a half years.

The topic of “prisoner’s rights” isn’t a particularly sexy one.  As the old saying goes, “You do the crime, you pay the time.”  However, this is an interesting study in a European penal system and that of the United States.  For years, critics in the United States have decried the lack of rehabilitation programs in American prisons.  But England, in this instance, seems to have taken it one step farther in tying rehabilitation with the prisoner’s eventual release from incarceration.  Would a program like this work in the United States?  Would it even be constitutional?  On a larger level, should the American penal system focus more on rehabilitation rather than retribution?

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