Electronic curfew tags fail the test of crime

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The Independent Online
The Home Office was forced to put on a brave face yesterday after its own research showed that a quarter of the young criminals fitted with electronic tags in pilot schemes had breached their orders.

The study, published today, also reveals that each of the electronic monitoring orders are likely to be costing the taxpayer more than four times the cost of putting the offenders on probation.

The report examines the first full year of trial schemes into the use of the American-style tags in Greater Manchester, Norfolk and Berkshire which began in July 1995, under which courts can impose curfew orders on offenders aged 16 and over, restricting their liberty from between two and 12 hours a day for up to six months.

Of the 83 tagged, mostly for dishonesty or possession of drugs, 19 either tore off their electronic bracelets - fitted to the ankle or wrist - or committed other offences. Fifteen were subsequently resentenced to custody.

While just 236 young criminals have been tagged since the pilots began 18 months ago, with 91 still being monitored, Securicor Custodial Services, the private security firm which monitors the schemes in Greater Manchester and Reading, Berkshire, claimed yesterday that the research had judged the United States import a success.

But there was a lower-key response from Baroness Blatch, the Home Office minister, who said: "As the report makes clear, tagging can be a worthwhile community sentence. Tagging represents a useful additional sentence for courts."

Although the research, Curfew Orders with Electronic Monitoring, was never designed specifically to test whether tagging should be, or was being, used as an alternative to custody, Lady Blatch added it was a "cost- effective" alternative to imprisonment and that the research had found that some magistrates viewed it as such.

This is in contradiction to the original intention that it was to be used as an addition to the existing range of community penalties, and lends weight to reports that some magistrates have been persuading potential tagees to accept monitoring or risk being sent to jail for petty offences that would not normally merit imprisonment.

Alongside the emerging policy vacuum over how tagging ought to be used, an analysis of a recent parliamentary answer reveals that current costs are significantly higher than ministers may wish to admit. In what appears to be an attempt to massage the figures, the Home Office suggested yesterday that the cost of a tagging order was "estimated" at being slightly less than for an average probation order and less than half the cost of a custodial sentence of the same length.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said yesterday that the average cost of probation was pounds 50 a week while a prison sentence cost pounds 425 a week.

A parliamentary reply on 4 December from Baroness Blatch to Lord Harris revealed that pounds 2.4m had been spent on the experiment so far. Even excluding the pounds 1.3m likely to have been spent on start-up costs, each order has probably cost in the region of pounds 4,782.

Taking an average curfew order of four months, the weekly cost would be in the region of pounds 367 a week. In fact, the Home Office cost "estimate" might only be feasible if the courts imposed some 15,000 tag orders a year - the level officials have suggested would be needed for private security firms to operate schemes profitably. According to reports from the pilot areas, Securicor staff have been called upon to perform a range of support tasks, from the fetching of a prescription or a four-pack of lager during curfew hours to counselling an offender threatening suicide. The company later confirmed that the average number of offenders per member of staff was two.

Mr Fletcher said: "A study of just 83 people is too few to make an evaluation but I think this invalidates the whole project. This level of support simply would not be available if the scheme was extended nationally, which indicates that the rate of breaking of orders, which is already double that of probation, would go up, not down."