After destroying the monopoly of state-run prisons, the Government is moving further down the road of privatised punishment by hiring security firms to supply and supervise criminals sentenced to 'electronic tagging' as part of court curfew orders.
Tagging - a system under which an electronic ankle bracelet emits alarm signals if an offender leaves his or her home - is to be reintroduced in three trials next March, despite the embarrassing pounds 500,000 failure of three similar pilot schemes three years ago.
Ministers are apparently wedded to electronic supervision which they believe could cost as little as pounds 25 a week if courts can find sufficient numbers of offenders to tag.
According to the Home Office documents, this time the private company supplying the tag will also be doing the work of others in the criminal justice system. The company will have to provide 'responsible officers' who are expected to supervise offenders and 'undertake prosecutions' if conditions are breached. It had been envisaged that probation officers or even those from the relevant voluntary sector would supervise the offenders.
But news of the enhanced role of the private sector in the tagging trials surprised magistrates, who are already concerned that electronic monitoring may not prove 'a very useful tool'. This month's edition of The Magistrate, the JPs' journal, highlights some of its restrictions. Emphasising that tagging is not to be used as an alternative to prison, it points out that neither offenders with jobs nor those on benefit could be tagged as they would then not be available for work.
Rosemary Thomson, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said she was concerned about the qualifications of the new 'responsible officers'. 'They will need very careful training in the supervision of offenders and prosecution techniques and the giving of evidence,' she said.
Tagging was the brainchild of a US judge in Albuquerque who was inspired by a Spiderman comic strip in which the hero was tagged and tracked by his arch enemy.
It was introduced on an experimental basis in Nottingham, Newcastle and London in 1989 as a way of enforcing bail conditions and as an alternative to prison. However, it ended in fiasco. Of the 49 people tagged, 18 tore them off and absconded and 11 more committed further offences while under house arrest; one was later convicted of murder.
The Home Office paper, foresees a variety of circumstances under which those offenders selected for the new trials at Reading, Manchester and in Norfolk may also breach the tagging curfew, by simply absconding, or by tampering with or damaging the anklet.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'Security companies have no experience of working with offenders. The magistrates' sentencing advice suggests that few curfew orders will actually be made and the Home Office papers suggest that violations and breaches will be the daily norm. It is hard to see how tagging will be credible or the scheme profitable.'Reuse content