Criminals face transatlantic tags

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The Independent Online
THE Home Office wants American electronic tagging companies to monitor British criminals from computer centres on the other side of the Atlantic, confidential documents seen by the Independent on Sunday reveal.

Civil servants will meet representatives of the leading US electronic tagging company tomorrow to discuss the possibility of monitoring across time zones offenders confined under 'house arrest'.

The electronic tagging of offenders was first tested in Britain in 1989. It was abandoned when three pilot projects ended in near-farce, after 18 offenders tore off their tags and ran away. But the idea has been revived, and electronic companies have been invited to bid for the contracts to run new trials on 400 to 500 male and female offenders in Manchester, Norfolk and Reading next year. Civil servants and ministers have an almost evangelical belief in the technology.

The system works by fitting a transmitter on to the ankle of a defendant awaiting trial, or a criminal. If the criminal breaks his curfew, his absence can be detected using a monitoring device installed by the telephone.

The Home Office believes there is no reason why American companies could not monitor British offenders from computer centres in the United States.

At a meeting with the Association of Chief Officers of Probation on 29 April, Hugh Marriage, the deputy head of the Home Office Probation Division, outlined trans-continental tagging.

A minute of the meeting reports that Mr Marriage expects to receive tenders from US tagging firms. 'It is thought likely that during the trials at least, contractors will operate the electronic systems from their home base in the United States with only a small staff presence in the UK,' the minute says.

'The technology is such that it is now possible to operate the system around the world . . . One American firm is operating electronic monitoring from America for the Singapore government.'

Several US tagging firms, including BI Incorporated, the biggest electronic monitoring company in the US, plan to break into what they hope will be a lucrative British market.

John Thurston, BI's International Manager, who will be meeting Mr Marriage tomorrow to discuss contracts in Britain, said from the firm's headquarters in Boulder, Colarado, that it was 'certainly technically possible' to monitor offenders from across the Atlantic, although the Home Office claim that Singapore drug users were being monitored from America was false.

'If they wanted us to do it we would,' he said 'But I wonder whether there is any way the British public would put up with it.'

Probation officers, meanwhile, have warned that the Home Office is planning to tag thousands of offenders and defendants - a policy which would enable private American and British companies to become powerful forces in the criminal justice system.

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the National Association of Probation Officers, said that the Government was no longer considering tagging criminals and confining them at home for up to 12 hours a day as an alternative to prison. Instead it is studying tagging 'thousands of minor offenders' as an alternative to 'constructive probation schemes in the community'.

'Despite all the evidence from the past that tagging is an expensive failure, wide-eyed Home Office officials and ministers still prefer to look for technological solutions to crime rather than tackling its root causes or trying to change offenders' behaviour.'

The history of tagging is certainly chequered.

It was invented in 1983 by Judge James Love, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose inspiration came from a Spiderman cartoon strip in his local newspaper. It showed the superhero being tagged by Kingpin, an evil villain, and tracked across the city. Judge Love took the idea to a businessman friend, who manufactured the first tag.

The judge saw tags as a humane alternative to prison, but is now concerned by the Orwellian power of the state to monitor and watch citizens.

When the Home Office first tried tagging in 1989, it spent pounds 500,000. Despite the massive outlay, magistrates in three pilot project courts were sceptical. In six months they found just 49 defendants suitable to be tagged.

Of these, 18 tore off their tags and ran away. Another 11 committed further offences while they were meant to be under house arrest. There were scores of technological faults. One defendant found there was a 'tag black spot' under his duvet, which set off an alarm.

The most spectacular failures included:

Two Scotsmen in London who obeyed the curfew order until they were interviewed for a television programme on tagging. They blew their appearance fees on a pub crawl, ran away and were found drunk and exhausted several days later.

A man alleged to have been involved in a killing while he was wearing a tag.

A young Tynesider who tore off his ankle tag and fled to Brighton. He found life in the South so hateful, he returned home and gave himself up. Magistrates, impressed by his local patriotism, said he didn't need to wear a tag again.

Critics point out that tagging is being promoted in Britain just when it is falling into disrepute in the United States.

An FBI investigation is now underway in Washington DC after 7,000 tagged offenders went missing in four years, and 700 are still on the run.

Records were falsified and escapes not reported to the police because staff could not keep up with the huge number of tagging failures. Arthur Hood, one of the correction officers who exposed the scandal, told how he had faked the records after one offender he knew, who ran away without any official alarm being raised, was found dead by the police miles away, still wearing his bracelet.

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