Letter: Tagging lessons

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The Independent Online
Sir: The Prison Reform Trust has always been sceptical about the electronic monitoring of offenders. But in the light of the Home Secretary's announcement that tagging is to be extended (report, 13 November), the impressions I gained recently in Norfolk as the guest of the tagging company Geografix may be of interest.

Those tagged in Norfolk have included a small number of women and one elderly sex offender, but the majority have been offenders familiar to any criminal justice caseload - unemployed men in their 20s and 30s, convicted, not for the first time, of offences of dishonesty or drunken violence. Although there was initial opposition from sentencers, curfew orders subject to tagging are now increasingly being used in the Norfolk courts. A success rate of around 90 per cent is claimed, and some key findings about best use of the tag have now emerged.

First, the periods of curfew must be realistic. If they are too long, then offenders are simply being set up to fail.

Second, the tag alone achieves very little unless it is backed up with other forms of help (Geografix has been surprised by the relationships those tagged have built up with its monitoring staff).

Third, the relatives of those tagged have not, in general, objected to their homes being turned into an extension of the penal sphere. Tagging does introduce an element of structure into lives which may otherwise be fractured and disorganised.

I was also impressed by the reports provided for the courts, at the end of sentence, on every tagged offender. This practice ought to be extended to every order imposed by the courts.

Of course, not everyone takes to the tag. Almost all offenders try to tamper with it in some way and I was told of one who tried to bribe his monitoring officers and of another who deposited all the electronic hardware in the Norfolk Broads. And it remains open to question whether tagging represents a sensible investment of public money compared with other sanctions.

Although tiny in scale at the moment, tagging also raises the spectre of far more pervasive state surveillance. I am told that the state of Texas is planning to launch its own satellite to tag the whereabouts of up to 500,000 of its citizens.

STEPHEN SHAW

Director

Prison Reform Trust

London EC1

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