Alongside Tony Blair, John Reid and the editor of The Sun, I spent a lot of last week worrying about prisoners, prisons and our sentencing policies. But when I hear talk of soft judges and a "justice gap", I wonder if I exist in a parallel universe.
Years ago I wrote the biography of that indefatigable prison visitor, Lord Longford, and following his death I joined with his friends and family to set up a charitable trust in his memory. One of our projects is to award scholarships to enable young ex-prisoners to go on, after being released, to university. It is now the time of year when applications for these awards are sifted and existing scholarships renewed. It has been a surreal experience carrying out this process against the backdrop of a witch-hunt against offenders.
I see little evidence that sentences are "soft". Many who apply to us are young people who have spent four or five years inside because they stepped over the line between using drugs and selling them on to others. I'm not excusing this at all. But treating foolish teenagers tempted, often just once, to make what seemed like an easy buck as if they are hardened members of international drugs syndicates or Yardie gangs is madness.
New Labour promised to be tough on the causes of crime, but these are very different from what politicians tell us they are. In a standard inner-city prison I visited recently, the governor informed me that around 75 per cent of his mainly young inmates were functionally illiterate. Many came from broken homes, had mental health problems, or had no fixed abode. Few had families waiting for them outside. If you are really intent on tackling the causes of crime, this is where you need to direct resources.
We spend a fortune on building prisons in which we cram more people than ever before. A fortunate few do emerge determined to make a fresh start, but they are a tiny minority. For most, prison simply doesn't work. Labour used to scoff at Michael Howard, then Tory home secretary, for proclaiming that it did, but now they are trying to sell us the same lie. Some 80 per cent of young offenders commit crimes again soon after they come out of jail. We have one of the highest rates of recidivism in Europe.
This is not, in fairness, for lack of effort on the part of prison staff. But when you are running at capacity plus 10 per cent, there is no time left for anything but containment. "If I make sure no one is killed while in my jail," the same governor told me, "I think I've succeeded." But one day, we'll have to give rehabilitation a chance. And what better place to start than in prison?
The government's concern for victims is a legitimate one, but Lord Falconer's remarks yesterday suggest it is getting closer towards saying that the victims of crime should be allowed a say in the offender's sentence. My elderly disabled mother's house was broken into a few years back by a gang of youngsters, and she never quite got over it before her death. Sitting with her behind the locked doors and window shutters she had installed, I'd have happily advocated capital punishment. Which is why I was totally unfit to have a say in what happened to them.
Yes, there is a strong case for restorative justice programmes, where offenders are later brought face to face with victims in an effort to promote mutual understanding. But appropriate sentences for crimes must be set by our legislators with a view to the common good.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and director of the Longford TrustReuse content