Overcrowding of prisons is putting pressure on criminal justice systems to use alternatives to custodial sentences. Electronic tagging is one method which can be used either instead of, or to reduce the length of, a prison sentence or as part of a non-custodial sentence. This is in effect a form of house arrest or curfew, in which offenders are required to stay at or close to their homes for a specified number of hours per day. An electronic tag worn on their person, usually on the ankle, alerts a control center if they violate these conditions.
Although tagging has been used in the United States since the mid-1980s, it has only recently been more widely adopted around the world in countries including Canada, Australia, Singapore, Sweden and the Netherlands. Within Europe, the UK was the first country to introduce electronic tagging, initially on a trial basis in 1989 as a condition of bail, with electronic monitoring as a specific curfew order sentence later introduced under the 1991 Criminal Justice Act.
The main potential benefits of electronic tagging are cost savings to the criminal justice system and the more optimal use of prison space. However, tagging hasn’t yet been adopted as standard practice in many countries, and where it is in use, relatively little systematic research has been conducted into its costs and benefits. Much of the research which has been conducted has been in the UK, where a great deal of controversy surrounds the practice of electronic tagging.
Human Rights Issues
Although there have been no successful legal challenges to the use of tagging on grounds of human rights, it has sometimes been argued that electronic tagging violates either Convention Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” or Article 8, which provides the right to “private and family life.” In a UK study, tagged offenders complained of being stigmatized and treated like animals; cases were also identified in which tagged individuals were attacked by others who suspected them of being sex offenders. On the other hand, there is evidence that some prisoners prefer tagging to prison sentences, leading to charges on the part of opponents of tagging that it is a soft option and one which does not deter individuals from re-offending.
The case for tagging hasn’t been helped by some high-profile bad publicity, such as the case of a female suspected burglar in England, who escaped for a two-week vacation without detection while tagged, and other media stories about individuals slipping off their tags to go on a crime spree. These types of incidents generally result from inadequacies in the monitoring system used rather than a problem with electronic tagging more generally, but their sensationalist aspects tend to overshadow more serious debate about the potential role of tagging in fighting crime. Moreover, the whole issue of tagging offenders has been mixed up with proposals and counter-arguments on both sides of the Atlantic about its use for other groups, such as juvenile truants and asylum seekers, which have brought the human rights aspects of tagging to the fore.
In the absence of successful legal challenges to tagging on grounds of human rights, any future expansion of its use is likely to be driven by cost considerations as well as more robust evidence of its effectiveness in reducing re-offending. Yet the limited research in both these areas has produced findings which are inconclusive and contradictory.
Costs and Benefits
Some studies have generated estimates of significant cost savings from the use of electronic tagging, mostly extrapolated from evaluations of small-scale trials or fairly simplistic number-crunching exercises. An early evaluation of trials in the UK claimed that several million pounds a year would be saved if curfew orders with tagging were rolled out nationally, with at least two-thirds of these orders replacing custodial sentences; an online BBC report recently claimed that tagging an offender for a year costs less than 10% of the cost of imprisonment for the same period. However, electronic tagging can only generate cost savings if used to replace custodial rather than other community-based sentences, with the latter perhaps being less costly to implement and monitor. A Canadian study by the John Howard Society of Alberta observed that tagging may even add costs to the correctional system by increasing levels of control to an extent which is unnecessary for some lower-risk offenders.
Similarly, there is conflicting research evidence on the impact of tagging on re-convictions. For example, a 1999 Canadian evaluation reported that electronic monitoring had no identifiable impact on future criminal behavior, yet a 2006 Florida-based study of 75,661 tagged offenders found evidence of significant reductions in the likelihood of conviction for a technical violation or new offense. However, a 2004 Florida study provided evidence that a high proportion of the tagged individuals in that state were low-risk offenders who would probably have received non-custodial sentences anyway, so the cost-savings of electronic tagging may have been minimal.
According to 1999 research with magistrates in the UK, tagging is a useful way of disrupting patterned criminal behavior such as night-time burglaries, shoplifting and late-night public order offenses and is also effective for long-term monitoring of sex offenders and other ex-offenders who continue to present a public safety risk. However, the magistrates interviewed argued that tagging is not an appropriate way of dealing with all types of convicted criminals, especially those who might present a risk to their own family members if confined to their homes. More systematic research is needed into the use of tagging for different categories of offenders to identify how the practice can generate the greatest cost savings to the penal system as well as helping to reduce overall crime rates. Criminal justice researchers will also need to examine the potential use of new forms of surveillance technology, such GPS satellites, which may open up opportunities for more effective monitoring of offenders in the community but will also certainly bring human rights issues into the center of the debate.
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