Second chances for ex-offenders through education

Opinion on 17th November 2010

Peter Stanford on why the 2010 Longford Prize-winners have a lesson to teach us all

There are many myths that the public choose to believe about prisoners - often with the encouragement of certain sections of the press and of politicians. One of the most widespread is that it is impossible to rehabilitate sex-offenders, that once those who have served sentences for such crimes are released they will reoffend, and that it would therefore be better if they were locked up forever.

The facts are rather different, and therefore it was with great pleasure that the judges were able to award the 2010 Longford Prize to Circles UK, a charity of Quaker origin which through a dozen local projects runs 'circles of support and accountability' for newly-released sex offenders. In these circles, four or five volunteer members of the public - who have been suitably trained by the charity - work with a 'core member', the ex-prisoner, both to support him or her as they struggle to rejoin society, and to hold him or her to account in case they begin to stray back towards offending.

It is not just the Longford Prize judges who have been impressed by Circles UK. They receive support from government agencies - including the Ministry of Justice and the Probation Service. And this help is based, in these tough economic times, not simply on cost - ie that it is substantially cheaper to support an ex-offender in the community by a circle, rather than spend the £40,000 to £50,000 a year it costs for a prison place - but also because circles work. The reoffending rates of those who have worked with a circle are very low indeed.

The success of Circles UK is a success for all of us - for offenders who sincerely want to rejoin society but need vigorous support; for an overstretched prison service; for victims who are concerned that what they suffer must never be allowed to happen to anyone else again; and for the community at large. What we all want is for those convicted of crimes never to offend again once they are released. Because of the work of Circles UK with sex offenders, some of the most marginalised and despised of ex-offenders, that is more likely to happen.

The judges of this year's Longford Prize - who included David Graham, chair of New Bridge, Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, and Lord Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons - produced the following citation for Circles UK's award when it was presented on November 16 at the annual Longford Lecture. The judges made the award, they said, 'in recognition of Circles UK's courage, commitment and innovation in working, on their release from prison, with sex offenders, one of the most marginalised groups in our society. Circles UK brings together voluntary and statutory partners, including victims' groups, in a constructive alternative response which provides a much greater opportunity for preventing further crime, rehabilitating the offender, and achieving safer communities for us all'

Peter Stanford is director of the Longford Trust

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