Opinion: Third Voice - Prison charities must stay firm under tabloid fire

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster and director of the Frank Longford Charitable Trust

Like the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the redtop newspaper editors, I have spent the past week in the company of prisoners.

But the current hue and cry about soft judges, sentences that are too short and the need to balance victims' rights with those of offenders is a million miles away from the realities that I've seen.

I run a small prison reform charity. We give bursaries to enable young ex-prisoners to go to university to complete their rehabilitation.

It's the time of year when applications are sifted and existing scholarships are renewed. Carrying out the process against the backdrop of a witch hunt against offenders makes me feel as if I exist in a parallel universe.

So let's nail a few of the ridiculous 'facts' that our politicians are feeding us.

Firstly, sentences are not 'soft'. I'm dealing with a group of young people, many of whom have spent four or five years inside because they stepped over the almost invisible line between using drugs and selling them on to a few others around them. I'm not excusing drug use, but treating foolish teenagers as if they are hardened gang members helps no one.

Second, locking more people up for longer doesn't work. The reoffending rate for young prisoners is almost 80 per cent.

Third, most people in prison are not 'bad'. Illiteracy rates in prison, for instance, stand between 70 and 80 per cent. Rather than demonising, we might try to understand why inmates end up behind bars.

Fourth, nearly all prisoners will be released one day. It's in our interest to make sure that prison is used for rehabilitation as well as punishment.

Finally, the victims of crime are in the worst position to dictate offenders' sentences. They are often so traumatised that they would happily restore capital punishment for the burglars who wrecked their home. Appropriate sentences for crimes must be set by our legislators with a view to the common good. Hard cases make bad laws.

Those of us in the voluntary sector who work with prisoners are currently stigmatised as naive do-gooders. But we need to keep our nerve, keep our grip on reality and try to inject a little sanity into the debate - if anyone will listen.

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