A judicial landmark recently marked the successful policy of confining more prisoners under curfew at home as an alternative to imprisonment in the United Kingdom.
As with work and shopping, information technology offers a cheap and effective way of doing things, including the tagging of criminal offenders. Both advantages are claimed for proponents of electronic tagging in the UK where the practice is now being extended to new groups of lawbreakers including juveniles, as a condition of bail.
The system, which is in operation in England and Wales, involves the fitting of lightweight personal identification devices at home to offenders' ankles or in exceptional cases, their wrists.
These transmit signals between 7 pm and 7 am to a 24-hour surveillance centre via a monitoring unit located in the place of curfew. If a breach occurs, a field officer is sent to investigate and the offender may be returned to court for further action.
Pilot tagging projects began in England and Wales eight years ago and expanded to become the largest established scheme in Europe. They were greeted with initial scepticism by many politicians, probation officers and penal organisations on grounds of the system's technical reliability and its suitability for offenders whose lifestyles were frequently chaotic.
Positive subsequent assessment resulted in the measure being extended a year ago to 12 to 16-year-olds deemed likely to re-offend while on bail.
In a further recent development, pilot schemes have begun for a scheme targeting 18 to 20-year-old repeat offenders who will be subject to tagged overnight curfews and required to undertake - with the help of a mentor - further education and employment training as well as seven hours a week of unpaid community work such as cleaning graffiti. Compensation orders requiring offenders to pay the victims of their crimes for injury, loss or damage may also be made.
Home Office Minister, Hilary Benn, explained that the tagging of teenagers on bail was directed at a relatively small number of juveniles who were out of control and engaged in a disproportionate amount of crime.
For the 18 to 20-year-olds the new tough and demanding community penalty aimed to provide an alternative to custody that failed to address underlying problems. Breaches would put offenders back in court with the prospect of imprisonment. Until these two innovations, tagging was used only as a sentence in its own right or as a form of transition back into the community for prisoners approaching their release dates. 90% were male.
Two thirds of current monitoring is carried out under the home detention curfew scheme which allows prisoners deemed eligible to leave jail up to 90 days before their release dates. So far, fewer than 3% in this category have re-offended while under curfew.
The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) - a charity which advises on ways of improving the penal system - points to the advantages of the method when used in place of custody because it permits adult offenders to stay in employment or education while keeping accommodation.
Sentences for juveniles that included electronic monitoring, the PRT concludes, have had a significant impact on reconviction rates. Judith Lyon, the PRT's director, believes community sentences do far more in the long run to reduce crime and has called for the wider use of tagging in particular circumstances.
Cherie Booth, QC, Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, made a similar point when she spoke at a PRT meeting. She explained that 8000 of some 70 000 people imprisoned in England and Wales were serving sentences of under a year, which was too short for a viable training and rehabilitation programme to be undertaken. Prisoners who lost their homes, jobs and family contacts were more likely to re-offend.
About a fifth of prisoners deemed by the authorities to be eligible choose not to be considered for the scheme, often because they claim that they have no suitable accommodation at which the monitoring unit could be installed.
For a few, family contact may be more stressful than prison and even lead to domestic violence. Some wives welcome having their husbands at home in the evening and report that fathers became more interested in helping their children.
Private contractors are responsible for monitoring offenders and notifying the prison or probation service when breaches of curfew conditions occur.
The Securicor Group offers a service costing about 1600 pounds sterling annually per prisoner, a huge saving on imprisonment.
Reliance Security, another firm engaged in tagging, also offers a voice verification system in which a 'voiceprint' is taken from an offender against which subsequent checks are matched. Failure to make or receive designated calls is reported to the relevant authorities. No tag is required for the system which checks where the offender is at the time of random calls. Offenders may also be asked to call a Reliance monitoring centre from a specific phone at a given time.
A separate initiative has been introduced recently, whereby a new Web-based system tackles the small number of hard-core criminals who, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith says, are responsible for half of recorded crime.
J-track employs new high-tech software that flags those convicted of six or more crimes in the past year on the police national computer and alerts police, courts and prison and the probation service at every stage of the judicial process. This ensures that cases are listed as soon as possible for trial and that support is given to victims and witnesses.
Last month the government congratulated the criminal justice agencies in halving the time taken to deal with persistent young offenders who are now brought from arrest to sentence within an average of 69 days.
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