Ten-year-olds set for electronic ball and chain

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The Independent Online
Up to 7,500 criminals, including children, will be fitted with electronic tags under plans announced yesterday. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, examines a dramatic move to curb lawlessness and force down the jail population.

Child offenders as young as 10 will be fitted with tags and placed under house arrest as part of an expansion of electronic monitoring announced by the Government yesterday.

In addition, up to 7,500 criminals will be tagged and released as much as two months before their sentence is completed. All offenders jailed from three months to four years will eligible for early release providing they do not pose a threat to the community.

The move, condemned by the Tories as the Government going soft on crime, is aimed at reducing the jail population, which has reached a record 63,500, and helping offenders acclimatise to life outside jail.

Jack Straw, Home Secretary, said that as part of the expansion of tagging, children aged 10 to 15 will be tagged in two trial areas of Greater Manchester and Norfolk. Labour opposed tagging while in opposition, but now believes it is a useful alternative to prison.

From January, courts will be able to impose a curfew order on young offenders, who will have to wear a tag on the wrist or arm, which will be monitored by a private security firm to ensure the child does not leave home during a specified period. The punishment will be part of a community penalty for offences such as vandalism. Although Mr Straw had said he intended tagging younger offenders, it was not expected they would be as young as 10. At present the youngest criminals tagged are 16.

The mass early release of thousands of prisoners on tags will have the biggest impact on the criminal justice system. Criminals convicted of all offences, including burglary and assault, could be placed under house arrest and released from jail up to two months early if they are no longer considered a danger by the prison governor and other agencies.

Most offenders convicted of sexual and violent crimes would not be considered for tagging. Of the 7,500 criminals eligible at least half are expected to be tagged. Spread throughout the year, that would mean about 30,000 inmates would be under a curfew.

Offenders placed under the Home Detention Curfew, which will be included in the Crime and Disorder Bill and which is expected to become law in 1999, will have to spend a minimum of nine hours a day at home. They would start the curfew from two weeks to two months before they were released, which is usually after half the court sentence has been served. A breach of curfew could result in the offender being returned to jail. Mr Straw said: "Home Detention Curfew will ... deprive them of their liberty for a major part of the day, but will also allow them to inject some sense of structure and order into their lives."

In the Commons yesterday Sir Brian Mawhinney, the Tory home-affairs spokesman, accused Labour of betraying its election pledge to be tough on crime.

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