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Electronic tagging should be used to keep track of offenders even those not presently charged with an offence
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Andy Homer
Andy Homer says monitoring technology is very reliable

Quotation marks
  "Re-offending in the community by those on the tag has proved negligible"
Quotation marks
Tom Stacey, Offender's Tag Association

Probation officer Martin Graham says tagging should be combined with supervision in the community

Quotation marks
  "There's still no evidence that it has reduced crime or prevented offenders from committing further offences"
Quotation marks
Harry Fletcher, National Association of Probation Officers

Tagging info
If a tagged person (1) moves out of designated boundaries (2) then the tag sends a signal to a monitoring centre (3)
Imagine this scenario. A man with a record of sex offences against children has recently been let out of prison. He is a known paedophile, and he has been warned to stay away from young people. One day, walking through his neighbourhood, he is drawn to a school playground. It is what the local community feared. But within minutes, and before any crime has been committed, a patrol car pulls up and he is detained.

Audio  Watch Peter Gould's report   Real 56K

A tracking device on his body has used a global positioning satellite to check his exact location. And a tiny transmitter has sent a signal warning the police that he has strayed too close to potential victims. Far-fetched? Not any more. It's just a question of making the device small enough to fit into a single band that fits around the wrist or ankle.

It is the latest step in a technological quest to provide alternatives to prison that restrict the freedom of the criminal and protect the public. The idea began in Britain more than a hundred years ago, when it was proposed that released convicts should be marked with an indelible ink to keep track of them and warn the public about their criminal history.

Rising prison populations

Such a suggestion today would lead to an outcry from penal reformers who argue that those who serve their sentence deserve the chance to put their criminal past behind them. But the modern development of electronic tagging has been adopted as a way of coping with rising prison populations and the expense of keeping prisoners behind bars.

Electronic monitoring has been widely used in the United States for more than a decade, and now many countries in the rest of the world are introducing schemes for the tagging of certain offenders. South Africa believes it will enable 30,000 prisoners a year to be released from the country's overcrowded jails. In Sweden, tagging is used to enforce curfews for people convicted of drink-driving offences.

In England and Wales, magistrates and judges can impose a court curfew order as an alternative to sending an offender to prison. From 1 February, this option will also be available for juveniles aged 10-15. Offenders already in prison, serving sentences of at least three months, but less than four years, can be released early, if they agree to be bound by a Home Detention Curfew Order.

  • Tagging in the UK was piloted in Manchester, Reading and Norwich between 1995 and 1997 and was introduced on a wider scale in 1999
  • So far around 27,000 people have been released from prison early to serve out the remainder of their sentence "on the tag"
  • Those elegible for electronic monitoring can be released from prison 'on the tag' between two and 12 weeks early
  • A court curfew order can be imposed by a judge instead of custody - only around 200 people have been tagged as an alternative to prison so far
  • At any one time about 2,000 people are tagged and completing their sentences at home or in a hostel
  • 2% of tagged offenders have re-offended while on the tag – most were driving offences
    Source: Offender's Tag Association
  • Fact boc bottom

    Offenders completing their sentences "on the tag" have to remain indoors at certain times of the day and usually at night. Their compliance with the curfew is checked with an electronic tag and a monitoring unit placed in their home, and connected to a central control room by a telephone line.

    Other ideas for electronic tagging are also being actively explored. In stalking cases, an "exclusion zone" can be created around the home of a victim. If the tagged offender gets too close, he or she triggers an alarm. The technology is developing all the time. One such development is "voice verification" software. This will enable the exact location of an offender to be checked at any time by a simple telephone call.

    'Tamper proof' system

    Premier Monitoring Services runs the tagging operation in the London area, Eastern England, the Midlands and Wales. Assistant director Andy Homer says the technology has developed to the point where it is not only very reliable, but tamper proof.

    "To date we are not aware that anyone has managed to get round the system. We've been running now for five or six years, and we have the credibility and experience to prove to the courts that it works very well," he says.

    There are cost benefits for the criminal justice system too. Sending someone to prison for a year costs a minimum of £24,000. Tagging an offender costs just £2,000, and eases the strain on the prison system. But the growth of electronic monitoring in England and Wales has not been as rapid as some would like. The Offender's Tag Association, a penal reform group that promotes such schemes, says that Home Detention Curfews could be used for twice the number of offenders currently tagged.

    It puts the blame partly on administrative difficulties. But it says that there are political pressures. There is an anxiety on the part of the government that tagged offenders will re-offend, while the Opposition accuses the home secretary of reducing the impact of punishment on offenders.

    The Association's director, Tom Stacey, points out that only a tiny percentage of tagged offenders have been sent back to prison for breaching their curfews.

    "Re-offending in the community by those on the tag has proved negligible. The majority of prison and probation authorities concerned with HDC now wish to see the scheme expanded, that is to be offered to a wider range of those approaching the end of their custodial sentences," he says.

    A soft option?

    But because offenders prefer tagging to life behind bars, critics have been able to argue that it is a soft option. Whenever a tagged offender takes advantage of his freedom to commit further crimes, it attracts damaging headlines. There are also other doubts about the value of tagging. Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, says it's too soon to say whether tagging has helped to turn offenders away from crime.

    "I certainly think that tagging is here to stay," he says. "But there's still no evidence that it has reduced crime or prevented offenders from committing further offences. What we don't know is what happens to the individuals once the tagging period has stopped. My assumption is that a large proportion of them regress."

    Yet after initial concerns, there now appears to be a greater acceptance of tagging by those who work with offenders. Martin Graham, the assistant chief probation officer for Norfolk, says curfews can be very helpful when combined with supervision in the community.

    "Tagging by itself doesn't achieve anything, apart from confining someone to the house," he says. "But if it's combined with, say a probation order, it allows us to work in a more structured way with offenders who otherwise might have been leading quite chaotic lives."

    Tagging may also be a way to keep track of offenders who present a continuing threat to the public. The potential to monitor sex offenders after their release from prison is an obvious example. The technology is now available, and the extension of electronic monitoring could have far-reaching consequences for the way the criminal justice system deals with offenders.

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