Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Satellite Tracking of Offenders - Pie in the Sky?

The National Audit Office Report on recent efforts to expand electronic tagging paints a sorry picture of failed procurements, contract disputes and wasted public money including £60m of sunk costs. The report finds the new generation electronic monitoring system (EM)– which both enforces curfews by verifying whether an offender or suspect is at home and a location tracking function -will be five years late if it gets going by next year.

Whether this is realistic or not “will largely depend on the plans of G4S, the new preferred bidder for the tags”. It’s hard to understand how the controversial private security company is still involved in this field at all. For one thing, they are under investigation for fraud following the 2014 overbilling scandal- one of the factors identified by the NAO as contributing to the delays in the new system. Should criminal wrongdoing be proved, could they really continue with the contract?  And while G4S’s future role seems to be limited to providing the tags themselves, only last year faults were found with these. As a result enforcement action may have been taken against offenders or suspects in response to false tamper reports.

What the NAO report doesn’t do is make a broader and longer term assessment of the contribution that EM has and could make to criminal justice. If they had, they’d find the delay in getting location tracking off the ground is closer to fifteen years than five.   In 2004, with the prison population at 74,000, then Home Secretary David Blunkett promised that satellite tracking technology could provide the basis for a 'prison without bars', potentially cutting prison overcrowding, and expensive accommodation. Plans were announced for the 5,000 most prolific offenders in England and Wales to be tagged and tracked using the global positioning system (GPS). Pilot schemes were duly arranged and evaluated with magistrates and District Judges finding tracking “a helpful sentencing option”.

Since then, while the prison population has increased by 11,000, the NAO found that the average number of subjects having their movements tracked using GPS in 2016-17 was …20. It’s true that more than 10,000 people are subject to curfews of one sort or another and some – particularly those on Home Detention Curfew- would otherwise be in prison.

But for whatever reason- political, technological, administrative- the promise of tracking as a way of emptying prisons has simply not been delivered. When I put this point to a provider of EM recently, I was told something to the effect that only 2% of households had fridges in 1950. Success, it seems is just around the corner.

An excellent recent study of EM concluded that it has universal appeal, with its chief purpose being “its perceived ability to bring about cost savings by operating as an alternative to prison”.  But as the NAO finds “there is still limited evidence"about its effectiveness. While their report documents a shocking history of failure to organise EM properly, it avoids the bigger question about the role it is expected to play in the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

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