Punishment: Prisoners face early release as tagging scheme expands
About 3,000 criminals will be released from prison several months before completing their jail terms, under proposals to be announced next week.
The use of electronic tags, which are fitted to an offender's wrist or leg, is also to be extended to include other offences of persistent petty crimes and fine defaulters. In addition, existing pilot schemes are to be widened.
The moves mark a remarkable shift in thinking by both Labour and probation chiefs, who both strongly opposed the use of electronic monitoring when it was introduced by the Tory government.
In what will be the most controversial move involving tagging the Home Office is expected to announce plans next week to change the law to allow criminals who have committed non-violent offences to serve up to three months of their sentence at home with a electronic monitor. The change is expected to be included in the Crime and Disorder Bill and could become law by next summer.
An estimated 3,000 inmates could have their time inside cut, helping to ease the growing jail population, which has passed the record 63,000 mark in England and Wales. The early release of 3,000 offenders is expected to take effect immediately, although all inmates would be vetted to ensure that they did not pose a risk to the public.
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, believes that tagging offenders, so their movement can be monitored and curfews can be enforced, provides a useful and cheap alternative to prison.
Research, to be published next week, will show that two-year pilot projects in Norfolk, Berkshire and Greater Manchester had proved a success, with 83 per cent of the 375 offenders who had been placed on electronic monitoring schemes completing their sentence.
The proposed extension of the scheme to the neighbouring counties of Suffolk Cambridgeshire, Middlesex and West Yorkshire - announced last July - would now go-ahead, said Mr Straw yesterday.
The types of offenders placed under a tagging order are to be widened to cover juveniles, fine defaulters, persistent petty offenders and defendants on bail.
"It is now clear that sentencers do see electronic monitoring as a viable alternative to custody in many cases," Mr Straw told the National Probation Convention in London.
The Home Secretary also indicated that he wants to alter phrases such as "probation" and "community sentence" because he believes the public incorrectly associates them with a soft regime.
John Greenway, the Conservative home affairs spokesman, welcome what he called Mr Straw's "conversion" to a former Conservative policy.
But he expressed concern about the early release of the 3,000 prisoners. Mr Greenway, the MP for Ryedale, said: "While he may say that no one who is a threat to the public will be released, he cannot have total control over what happens. He should not be motivated by simply solving the over- crowding problem and saving money."
Geoff Dobson, vice-chairman of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, said that his organisation had been won over by the improvements in the technology of the tags.
But Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, argued: "I remain unconvinced that tagging so far has either reduced crime or lowered the prison population."
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