Government needs a new approach to tagging

9 September 2015

Tagging has become a common tool in offender management. By 2011-12, there were around 25,000 tags in daily use. Yet despite this volume, the criminal justice system in England and Wales is barely scratching the surface of its potential.

There are four key reasons for this.

Firstly, the existing tags are largely reliant on old technology (radio frequency (RF)), which whilst there is still a role for this, has limited capability. In America where GPS technology has been in use for years, criminal justice practitioners are able to be much more creative in their use of tagging – including using it for serious offenders. The Coalition Government recognised this and in early 2012 launched a procurement for the “new generation” of GPS-enabled tags. More than three and a half years later and no new tags have been mobilised, leaving the criminal justice system, with the exception of a handful of innovative local pilots, reliant on RF.

Secondly, even if the procurement had been delivered to plan in early 2013, the contract design itself is poor. Contrary to international practice, the Ministry of Justice split the service into four separate lots. Contrary to recent advice on effective public service markets, they awarded the delivery of each part to a single provider for up to six years. This model means there will be no competition to drive performance and innovation during the course of the contract – particularly worrying given the pace of technological change. It also means that local criminal justice services have to use the ‘one-size-fits-all’ tag that the Department commissions, rather than procuring for local need.

As Reform’s report out today argues, the Government should cut its losses and scrap the current procurement. Instead it should introduce an approved suppliers framework and allow local services such as police forces and Community Rehabilitation Companies to procure from it.

Thirdly, legislative change is needed to fully realise the benefits of tagging. Prison governors should be able to use early release under Home Detention Curfew for serious offenders, subject to an appropriate risk assessment. There is good evidence from the US that electronic monitoring is effective for violent and sex offenders. Evaluations of electronic monitoring programmes in California and Florida, for example, showed positive impacts on recidivism. There is also evidence from the US of the efficacy of tagging for domestic violence perpetrators, including increased likelihood of conviction and increasing victim safety. The Government should therefore amend the relevant legislation to allow courts to impose mandatory electronic monitoring as part of domestic violence-related order.

Fourthly, criminal justice practitioners need to be able to access monitoring data. Mapping the data against reported crimes would enable the police to quickly implicate suspects or eliminate them from their enquiries. Enabling police and probation officers to use the data to identify suspicious patterns of behaviour could help them prevent crime. And allowing probation officers to flex curfew conditions (within the limits set by the court) based on monitoring data could incentivise offender compliance and behaviour change.

The prize for getting electronic monitoring right is sizeable: increased public protection through increased compliance and decreased reoffending, swifter responses to breaches, and lower criminal justice system costs through reductions in prison time. The new Secretary of State for Justice should act now to make sure these benefits are actually realised.

Charlotte Pickles, Senior Research Director, Reform

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