Howard's electronic tagging trial 'a fiasco'

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The Independent Online
CONTROVERSIAL plans by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to bring the electronic tagging of offenders to Britain are proving to be an "expensive fiasco", probation officers claimed yesterday.

Pilot projects to test the practicality of electronically monitored house arrest began in Manchester and Norfolk two weeks ago. To date the courts have not ordered a single criminal to be tagged.

A survey by the National Association of Probation Officers found the chances of magistrates agreeing to anything but a handful of offenders being tagged in the coming months are "virtually nil". It alleged that 1,500 petty offenders who met the Home Office criteria to be tagged had been through 23 courts in Manchester and four in Norfolk which have been testing the American punishment.

Magistrates have asked for pre-sentence reports on feasibility tagging in just one case: a young offender charged with theft. He is arguing against the punishment saying he will lose his job if his employer sees him fitted with the electronic bracelet round his ankle or wrist.

Casual inquiries were made by the bench in a rural Norfolk court about two offenders before them. Magistrates were told at once that the pair had no fixed homes so it would be impossible to tag them because there was nowhere to set up the house-arrest monitoring equipment.

Meanwhile Manchester courts have produced just one case where magistrates are considering tagging. But this is just one punishment the bench is contemplating.

In theory, tagging should keep an offender at home under curfew at night. If he moves out of range of a transmitter in his living room, an alarm is meant to sound in the control room run by private security guards. Michael Howard has been a firm supporter of tagging as a tough community penalty even though previous trials collapsed

The last experiments in tagging were in Nottingham, Newcastle- upon- Tyne and London in 1989. But the courts agreed to tag just 49 people, most of whom tore off their tags, ran away and committed further offences.

The Home Office has ordered new trials, and its pounds 1.3m pilot project will be expanded tomorrow when Reading courts are given the power to tag.

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers' union, said that he suspected that the courts were refusing to order tags to be used because the punishment polarised opinion.

"It's a party political punishment which only the Conservatives support," he said. "Most people in the criminal justice system think it is immoral or silly."

Rosemary Thompson, chairwoman of the Magistrates' Association, denied her members were sabotaging the Government's project. "It's just that it is very hard to find offenders who you can use it on," she said. "They have to have committed a crime which is serious but not too serious."

The latest tagging experiments have been dogged by technical failure. The Manchester project was postponed for several weeks when three Home Office civil servants were tagged, but found that no alarms sounded when they left the curfew zone.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that the pilot projects were still at an early stage and it was impossible to say yet whether tagging was a success or failure.