Electronic tagging of prisoners released early can save the taxpayer money and ease pressure on jails, MPs have concluded.
But they have raised a series of concerns over how the home detention curfew (HDC) scheme works in practice, including the number of violent crimes committed by offenders let out on tags. Under the HDC scheme, which was introduced seven years ago, offenders are freed on tags up to 135 days before their scheduled release date and instructed to abide by the terms of their curfew.
With the country's jails at bursting point, and police cells being made available to hold prisoners from today, the Home Secretary, John Reid, has said he is keen to expand the use of tagging.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has given a cautious welcome to the scheme, which it said could be a "cost-effective alternative to custody". It added: "Curfews can help with the rehabilitation of offenders by allowing them to have contact with their families and to work or attend education or training. They cost some £70 less per day on average than keeping an offender in prison and help limit the prison population."
But the PAC warned the system is "stuttering along at present" and disclosed that 1,021 violent offences have been committed by prisoners released on tags.
They include one attempted murder, 35 cases of making threats to kill, 56 of wounding, 100 of possessing an offensive weapon, 145 of assaulting a police officer and 562 other assaults.
The MPs said the success of the initiative depended on keeping the risk to the public to a minimum and proving it can help return offenders to the straight and narrow. They warned there is "insufficient evidence" so far that tagging has helped to reduce reoffending or rehabilitate criminals.
MPs also expressed concern that prison governors - who are responsible for deciding whether to release inmates on HDC - get no feedback on whether the offenders complete the curfew or not.
Edward Leigh, the PAC chairman, said: "It is of crucial importance to public safety that they are given the kind of information on outcomes which can improve their future decision-making."
Paul Cavadino, chief executive of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, said 94 per cent of prisoners released under this scheme did not reoffend during their period of tagging. He said: "This is a strikingly low reconviction rate. Tagging also cuts long-term reoffending."
Gerry Sutcliffe, a Home Office minister, said the reoffending rate under the HDC scheme was a fraction of that for all prisoners. But he added: "We are not complacent however, and any offence committed is one too many. We are determined to do everything we can to reduce and stop such offences."
Tom Riall, chief executive of the tagging company Serco Home Affairs, said: "I'm delighted the PAC has recognised the value of electronic monitoring. "The latest contracts with the Home Office delivered a 40 per cent cost saving to the taxpayer through the introduction of new technology and better service design," he said.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "While tagging may have a useful role to play, it is vitally dependent on careful selection of the people who are tagged. If it is merely used as a means for the Government to combat their prison overcrowding crisis no one wins."
Alternatives to prison
Absolute Discharge No further action is taken.
Conditional Discharge No further action is taken unless the offender commit a further offence within a given period (no more than three years).
Fines Cash paid to the court for minor offences. Offenders can choose community orders as an alternative.
Suspended Sentence An offender is put on a supervision order with the probation service; if they commit a new offence they could be jailed.
Community Orders Offenders are given up to 12 different requirements, including drug rehabilitation, mental health treatment or training.
Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme Serious young offenders are monitored for up to 24 hours in the community.
Home Detention Curfew Inmates serving between three months and four years can be released up to 135 days early under strict curfew arrangements and wearing an electronic tag.
Early Release Scheme Foreign prisoners are released up to 135 days early if they return to their home country.Reuse content