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Indeterminate prison sentences

If an offender serving a sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) is released, they will be subject to an IPP licence and may be recalled to prison if they are a risk to the public.

An indeterminate prison sentence is where the court sets the minimum term of imprisonment an offender must serve before becoming eligible to be considered for release by the Parole Board. There are two types of indeterminate sentence:

1. Imprisonment for life – (called custody for life for an offender aged between 18 and 21).

A sentence of imprisonment for life must be imposed, where the following criteria are met:

  • the offender is convicted of a serious offence (defined as carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment or at least 10 years);
  • in the courts opinion the offender poses a significant risk to the public of serious harm by the commission of further specified offences;
  • the maximum penalty for the offence is life imprisonment; and
  • the court considers that the seriousness of the offence, or the offence and one or more associated offences, justifies the imposition of imprisonment for life.

Case study

D is convicted of an offence of causing grievous bodily harm with intent. This carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. He has two previous convictions for assault causing actual bodily harm in the past year. All his offences have been committed whilst he is very drunk – he refuses to have any treatment for his alcohol addiction. The court decides, on the basis of his previous convictions and this refusal, that he poses a significant risk to the public of committing further violent offences whilst he is drunk. The court sentences him to life imprisonment and will fix a minimum term that he must serve based on the facts of this offence.

For further information, please refer to section 225 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended).


Once an offender has served the minimum term set by the court, the Parole Board will decide whether the offender can be released from prison to serve the rest of their sentence on licence in the community. If the decision is taken to release an offender serving a life sentence, their life licence will last for the rest of their life.

2. Imprisonment for public protection (IPP) – (called detention for public protection for an offender aged between 18 and 21).

In 2011, there were 790 IPP sentences issued for those aged 18 and over and the number of the prison population serving an IPP was 6,078 (January to March 2012 figures).

A sentence of imprisonment for public protection may be imposed, under section 225 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended), where:

  • the offender is convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence which is punishable by imprisonment for life or a determinate period of 10 years or more;
  • in the court’s opinion the offender poses a significant risk to the public of serious harm by the commission of further specified offences;
  • the offence is punishable with life imprisonment and the court is satisfied that the seriousness of the offence justifies such a sentence; and
  • the offender has a previous conviction for an offence listed in schedule 15A to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 or the current offence warrants a notional minimum term of at least two years.

Case study

S is convicted of an offence of robbery involving a knife which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. S has a previous conviction for robbery committed with an imitation firearm. The court is of the opinion that S poses a significant risk to the public of serious harm with the possibility of further robbery offences involving weapons being committed. The court sentences him to imprisonment for public protection and sets the minimum term he must serve.


Once an offender has served the minimum term set by the court, the Parole Board will decide whether the offender can be released.

If an offender serving an IPP is released, they will be subject to an IPP licence and may be recalled to prison if at any point they are considered a risk to the public. After 10 years (and yearly after this if unsuccessful), an offender may apply for their licence to be cancelled. This decision is at the discretion of the Parole Board.

    Data is from the Court Proceedings Database and the Offender Management Caseload Statistics, Jan to March 2012.