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Playing tag

The technology is constantly improving – but the Ministry of Justice isn’t keeping up

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

The frustrating thing about tagging, or electronic monitoring (EM) is that it could so easily be effective — if only we did it properly. As a former police officer, I can vouch that Theodore Dalrymple is right when he says that it’s a relatively small number of prolific offenders who commit the majority of recorded crime. So if we used the right technology — if these criminals knew that any repeat offence would be almost certain to result in detection and punishment — then reoffending rates would fall. But although there’s a lot of potential in EM, I’m afraid the potential has been unrealised in this country. Ever since 1989, when we first started deploying EM as an alternative to prison and an aid to rehabilitation, we’ve got it wrong.

The Ministry of Justice is preparing to spend £3 billion over nine years on new EM arrangements. These urgently need to be better than those we currently have, but the signs do not look good. In September 2012, Policy Exchange published ‘The Future of Corrections’. Later that month, File on 4 reported into the finances of Serco, one of two UK tag providers. Its discovery of gigantic profits in Serco’s technology subsidiary aroused the interest of Margaret Hodge’s Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, which asked some hard questions about this apparent fleecing of the taxpayer.

These reports should have caused the MoJ to change direction. But I’m afraid the fact that they are preparing a nine-year contract suggests that they have not done so. Has nobody in the MoJ noticed that technology gets better and cheaper all the time? Why on earth would they give a nine-year contract to one provider? The MoJ has overseen a sclerotic, centrally controlled, top-down system that has enriched G4S and Serco (the UK’s duopoly suppliers of electronic monitoring), but lacks innovation and flexibility and does nothing to reduce offending. It is hideously expensive, costing thousands of pounds for each offender.

No independent review of tagging in the UK has produced any credible evidence that it does any real good at all. Prison governors have halved their use of it in the past nine years, despite a huge surge in prisoners. Few people who manage offenders under the current tagging system have much faith in it.

But it does not need to be like this. Modern GPS tags can monitor the exact movements of offenders, placing them within metres of a location. Try burgling or stealing a car wearing one of those! Motion sensors in tags can even detect whether a banned driver is driving a car. Similarly, there is monitoring capability that can remotely oversee the internet behaviour of sexual predators, the breath-alcohol content of convicted drunk drivers, and the drug metabolytes present in known drugs abusers. This amazing technology exists right now and is constantly improving. This is not a dystopian vision of a controlling state, but could be a practical, humane way of managing the 25,000 or so prolific offenders nationally who commit huge numbers of offences when at large.

Prison is very expensive and short sentences are ineffective in changing behaviour. Intensive modern monitoring technology could work just as well. This, along with appropriate support, could give repeat offenders the external motivation they need to help them desist. Alternatively, if they continued to offend, the superior technology would make them more likely to be reconvicted and removed again from the community.

The rapidly falling cost of GPS telephony, fibre optic technology and data management (in the cloud) means that tagging technology is becoming very affordable. Within two years, it will be possible to monitor the movements of known prolific criminals 24 hours a day, at a cost of less than £200 per person per year. Within five years, who knows how cheap it could be? So why on earth is the MoJ preparing to pay about £3,000 per person per year for nine years? They urgently need to reconsider what they’re doing.

Chris Miller was assistant chief constable of Hertfordshire from 2008 until 2011 and Acpo’s lead on electronic monitoring in 2011.

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