OPINION: Adverts put remand on trial

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

Charities advertising to tackle prejudice and injustice are becoming more common, as discussed here recently with reference to the Changing Faces campaign, but advertising as part of a drive to change policy, especially in a highly controversial area, is another matter altogether.

The Prison Reform Trust has just launched its Reform Remand campaign.

It features all the usual lobbying, meetings with ministers, website and press releases, but also, in a new departure, press ads.

It is fairly rare for our sector to use advertising other than for wider awareness raising. So, is this the way forward for other voluntary organisations that have lost faith in traditional routes as a way of bringing about specific legislative change?

Well, in extremis, yes. The bottom line on remand is that our system has long been an utter disgrace. A third of all prison suicides are people awaiting trial. Yet one in five of the 13,000 people on remand in our prisons will be acquitted and half receive a non-custodial sentence.

Ten years ago the trust produced a report saying all this. No one took any notice. Three years ago, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons published a damning indictment of the remand system - Unjust Desserts. The Home Secretary promised a response, but none has come. Nothing else, it seems, has worked.

Hence the decision to take the scandal direct to the public. Without popular concern behind the campaign, ministers will keep looking the other way.

And since penal reform is hardly top of people's agenda - certainly not David Blunkett's - they'll get away with it.

It will be interesting to see how far the trust succeeds. One measure will be how many people seeing the ads then contact the website. The ultimate measure will be whether our remand system becomes more humane. No-one doubts that some people cannot be at liberty while awaiting trial, but for too many years our politicians have been locking away and damaging individuals with little or no regard to the most basic principle of our justice system - innocent until proven guilty.

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