Tagging of child offenders planned

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The Independent Online
ELECTRONIC TAGGING devices are to be fitted to children as young as 10 under proposals being considered by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

The controversial plan to introduce child tagging nationally has been drawn up by the Government's Youth Justice Board in response to an anticipated explosion in the number of young people being locked up by the courts.

The board yesterday presented Mr Straw with a 50-page report on juveniles in custody, which predicts that the numbers of such youngsters will increase by 1,564 to 4,275 by the year 2003, a rise of 58 per cent.

It also proposes that girls should be mixed with boys in a planned new network of child jails, provided that "girls are not in a small minority".

Girls of 17, who are currently held in adult women's prisons, should be removed and placed in juvenile units.

The report calls for the new home detention curfews - which allow adult prisoners nearing the end of their sentence to go home early provided they wear a tag - to be extended to offenders aged 16 and 17. It is hoped that this will reduce the numbers in young offenders' institutions.

Tagging for those aged 10 to 15 would aim to keep youngsters off the streets by imposing strict curfew conditions, in line with court orders. The idea is being tried in Norfolk and Greater Manchester.

Lord Warner, the Home Office adviser who chairs the board, said yesterday: "It looks as though this will offer a promising alternative for some offenders. Assuming they work well, we will want to extend their use."

A Youth Justice Board spokeswoman said that the child-tagging projects would be fully evaluated next year. No obvious flaws have emerged though some fears remain about how such devices are viewed in the school playground. "We don't know whether a tag is seen as a stigma or a badge of honour," she said.

In Greater Manchester, 50 children aged between 10 and 15 have been given electronic tags, monitored by Securicor Custodial Services. They are worn to school and throughout the day and become active during the hours of curfew, triggering an alarm if the child leaves home.

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said that the idea was flawed.

He said: "What you have got is unruly children who invariably come from undisciplined families. To work, it will need the parents to exert influence over the child, which it appears they are not able to do." The plans to mix girls and boys in secure units also raised serious concerns among penal reformers.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, said: "Most of these girls are highly vulnerable.

"They are often drug addicts who may well have been abused by males throughout their lives. You have to treat these factors with enormous respect."

But the report states: `There is no reason in principle why girls and boys should not be held together in the same establishment, provided that there are high levels of staffing and a reasonable gender balance."

Earlier, at yesterday's Youth Justice Board conference, Mr Straw announced a grant of pounds 50m over three years for the second phase of the board's funding for programmes that change the behaviour of young criminals.