Shine A Light

Tagging ex-offenders is not all it’s cracked up to be

Electronic monitoring is no substitute for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health support and literacy coaching.

Andrew Neilson
2 October 2012

Last Tuesday at the Liberal Democrat party conference, the party passed a motion on prison rehabilitation. The motion said that the probation services industry is dominated by a few large companies like Serco and G4S, that there should “mandatory rotation of service providers” so that smaller organisations get the chance to provide services, that credit should be available to ensure small firms can enter the market and that companies with a large share of the probation market should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

This motion chimed with a recent report on the use of electronic monitoring in corrections by the right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange. In a well-researched overview of the current market for tagging and tracking those who commit crimes, Policy Exchange argue that the use of electronic monitoring has been too expensive and dominated by the duopoly of Serco and G4S, leading to a lack of innovation and a use of technology that has changed little since it was first deployed in 1989.

G4S tells the government and other potential customers: “Electronic monitoring (tagging) is a cost effective compliance solution.” But the Policy Exchange report estimates that electronic monitoring an individual costs £13.14 per day in England and Wales, while the equivalent in the United States was £1.22. Policy Exchange reckons £70 million could be saved if tagging were directly administered by police or probation officers, instead of by large private providers. The savings could fund an additional 2,000 probation officers or 1,200 police officers.

It is intriguing to see a think-tank which specialises in free market solutions to public policy questions come down so directly in favour of employing more public sector workers at the expense of private profiteering. Yet, given the parlous state of public finances, and as the G4S debacle over Olympic security demonstrated, it is high time to question an unthinking reliance on the private sector and its claims of cost-effectiveness.

Given the extra bureaucracy that might be required to maintain the Liberal Democrats’ level playing field, it seems unlikely that a commercial service open to smaller players could beat public provision on cost. In any case, there is more to an effective probation service than who is delivering the work. 

On tagging, the fundamental policy questions that government must answer include:

Who are we tagging, why, what for, and how?

As well as questioning the financial cost of the current system of electronic monitoring, Policy Exchange talk up the value of new global positioning system (GPS) technology in tagging.  The Scottish government is the latest to announce its adoption of this technology, although contra the argument in the Policy Exchange report, it has opted to do so through a single contract with G4S

Just as with the ‘SatNav’ technology used by motorists, GPS tagging uses satellites to monitor individuals to a few metres of their location. By comparison, the radio frequency (RF) tagging currently used in England and Wales merely monitors whether someone is in close proximity to a base station, usually located in their home, in order to enforce a crude curfew.

The Howard League has long been concerned that using tagging to impose curfews, usually between 7pm and 7am, is ineffective in preventing crime and is often imposed inappropriately in a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In particular, our work with young people has demonstrated that radio frequency tagging can cause practical problems that actively hinder individuals making positive changes in their lives.

One young person could not get back into the house because his mum was not back on time to let him in, so he had to put his foot right next to the door for an hour to avoid being breached.  Other young people reported not being able to turn up to work on time or being unable to travel to see their family.

GPS tagging would in theory allow for smarter approaches that work with the reality of people’s lives, rather than against them.  It remains to be seen however whether the new technology will be used positively or simply result in constant and indiscriminate monitoring. Twelve-hour curfews remain the default mode in sentencing. The government’s recent consultation on community sentences resulted in some unhelpful spin in the media, with talk of those on GPS tag being in ‘virtual prison’.  There is a real danger in over-relying on technological responses to human problems.

And tagging certainly costs money. Notwithstanding the potential savings identified by Policy Exchange, the use of electronic monitoring has doubled in recent years and now swallows up ten per cent of an ever-shrinking probation budget.  Expanding its use further is likely to remove funding from rehabilitative requirements that can directly tackle the causes of crime.

These positive programmes range from drug rehabilitation, alcohol treatment, classes targeted at basic skills such as literacy and mental health treatment. It is these programmes which help ensure that the reoffending rate for community sentences is 37 per cent, falling to 34 per cent for those on intensive programmes. By contrast, more than 61 per cent of those sentenced to less than a year in prison will be reconvicted of new crimes within two years of release.

While providing individuals with access to these interventions is much easier and cheaper than trying to do the same in prison, they do require funding and it is already the case that sentencers are not always able to send people on the programmes that they feel would provide the best results. In other words, tagging may have its place in helping to ensure individuals comply with the requirements of community sentences, but it is no substitute for tailored support with staff contact time and interventions that help people to change their lives.

With the government now seeking to insert punitive requirements into every community order, regardless of the evidence, these questions of what is or is not good policy go much further than simply the use of electronic monitoring.  Whichever sector ends up delivering aspects of probation, it is the government that sets the policy framework and the government that should ultimately be held to account for its success, or failure.

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