Tagging along with Michael Howard

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Tagging offenders was one of Michael Howard's all time bad ideas, wasn't it? Remember the fiasco when the first scheme was tried - the equipment failed and the Home Secretary had egg all over his face (tee hee). Now all of a sudden, the new Home Secretary is suddenly talking tagging too. What is this? New Labour, New Ball and Chain?

The news leaked out this week, a BBC scoop: Jack Straw was planning to release 4,000 prisoners early and tag them. There followed blustery semi-denials in the Commons to absurd Tory rants about rapists and murders set free to loot and pillage. But what is the Home Secretary up to?

Panic is in the air. Everyone knew that Howard had left behind a colossal land-mine, but no one expected the fuse to start to fizz so soon. The prisons are starting to explode. Frantic building of new prisons and new wings is not keeping pace: this year there are nearly 6,000 extra prisoners, but only 3,000 new places. Until May numbers were rising at around 150- 200 a week - and that was bad enough. But something odd has happened since the election - prison numbers are rising even faster. No one knows why, but suddenly the increase is reaching 300 a week and in one appalling week it was 600 - a whole prison-full. It forced Straw to U-turn on the use of private prisons and the prison ship. The convicts had to be put somewhere.

Whatever the reason, a crisis is at hand and the governors are protesting loudly. One says he is over-flowing with people sleeping on mattresses on the floor, in segregation and hospital cells. By next week, they say, the elastic prison walls will stretch no further. The Prison Officers Association, never one to miss a trick, is issuing ultimatums demanding more pay for its members guarding more prisoners. Yesterday it gave the Prison Service a 36-hour deadline to meet its demands: it knows how to twist the knife in a prison crisis. On Monday it meets Jack Straw and says its members will start to work to their health and safety rule book (a legal form of strike) if they get no satisfaction, ie more pay. This may be Labour's first union trial of strength - and probably its most unwelcome.

The Prison Governors Association is urging the courts to stop sending minor offenders to prison. Its survey in one typical closed prison shows that 64 per cent of offenders are not violent, not house burglars, not sex offenders, nor fraud or forgery cases. Most are drug users, who could and should have been sent to drug programmes in the community - if they existed.

Now when Douglas Hurd was faced with overcrowding, he let thousands of petty offenders out on executive release. There was no great outcry at the time, no hullabaloo in the tabloids. Nevertheless, Jack Straw has said he will not do it. He does not think he can get away with it, as a Tory Home Secretary could. What is more, Howard has since then whipped up public demand for long hard sentences and titillated the clamour for severe punishment with his Prison Works rhetoric. So what can Straw do?

This is where the tagging leak comes in. The clues were all there shortly after Straw took office. He talks loudly about the need to regain public confidence in community sentences: the public has to believe that a community sentence is not a liberal trick to let criminals off. How? You tag the offenders, night and day, track their every movement relentlessly and show that these criminals are definitely doing time - but in their own home.

Nobody was more against tagging when Howard first tried it than the probation officers. It threatened their profession. Would not an electronic device do their job for them? It threatened the whole ethos of working therapeutically with offenders. They were dead against it. But no longer.

Why not? Because, to their astonishment, they have found that tagging works. Yes, for once, Howard was right. One of the three pilot schemes, in Norwich, run by a small British company called Geographix, has had 120 widely varied offenders tagged so far, criminals who would certainly have gone to prison otherwise. Only eight have been returned to court and prison for breaching their curfews - a phenomenal success. The technology now works, and so does the whole sentence.

The court sets the hours of curfew to suit the crime. A man guilty of repeated violent affray on Saturday nights might be curfewed for every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. A persistent shoplifter might have to stay in 12 hours a day in shopping hours. If they are not home on the dot, an alarm rings at the control centre and someone phones them at home to see where they are. Within two hours someone visits them. If they clock up two hours' absence in total, they get sent a yellow card (as well as a visit). After four hours, a red card, and after that, it's back to court and jail. On average, most commit only two or three trivial violations.

All those tagged have been assessed by the probation service as suitable cases, and given a probation order at the same time. Many officers now speak in glowing terms about tagging. They say it helps chaotic offenders get some order into their lives, by having to keep to a timetable. It helps them resist peer-pressure to go out committing more crimes: they can say they can't go without loosing face. Many offenders themselves, grateful to escape jail, are saying it has helped them. What's more, the offenders have struck up good relationships with their taggers, whom Geographix has hand-picked as good communicators. Unlike the early models, the tag itself is small and discreet enough to hide on wrist or ankle - not publicly humiliating. In Sweden tagging has been so successful they have started to close down prisons, while we rush to open more.

So is Straw's big idea really to spring thousands of prisoners on tags? No. Or at least not now. But it plainly is his idea to expand tagging quickly over the next year and to encourage courts to use it. Once it is in general use, it will cost some pounds 4,000 a year instead of prison at pounds 24,000. Then he might quietly start to let people out early at the end of often over-long sentences.

In the meantime, he faces a prison crisis building into horrendous proportions. Jack Straw and the Lord Chancellor have to stop the sentencing lottery. A forthcoming report by the Prison Reform Trust will show that magistrates in Newcastle send 5.6 per cent of their cases to jail, while nearby Sunderland sends away a huge 18.7 per cent. Why? Southampton send 5.7 per cent to jail compared to Brighton's 13.2 per cent. If all courts imprisoned people at the lower rates, at a stroke there would be no overcrowding problem.

Jack Straw is billed to make a speech shortly on which many are pinning their hopes. They are waiting for the signal from him, loud and clear, that prison doesn't work - but good community sentences do. Howard created this crisis by demanding more prison; now Straw has to undo that damage. He may have to brave tabloid abuse. But if he funks it, he will reap the whirlwind inside the prisons, doing himself far worse damage in the long run.