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Irish Times Opinion Piece: Electronic tagging would be no penal reform

8th May 2004

The Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell, announced this week that his Department is considering the electronic tagging of offenders as one solution to prison overcrowding, unsustainable prison budgets and a lack of non-custodial sanctions.

His concerns are well founded. This week's report from the Prison Visiting Committees again highlighted abhorrent prison conditions, and the recent report from the Auditor General criticised the under-funding of the Probation and Welfare Service, and the Government's failure to meet targets for non-custodial sanctions.

One would be forgiven therefore for thinking electronic tagging can play a valuable role in addressing these urgent issues. The evidence, however, says otherwise.

The case for electronic tagging is premised on two arguments - that tagging offers an alternative to prison and will therefore reduce prison numbers and prison budgets, and that tagging can reduce recidivism.

On the surface this sounds compelling. However, when you scratch that surface - and review the evidence from tagging schemes in other countries - you find that neither argument stands up to scrutiny.

There is a very simple reason for this - the vast majority of those qualifying for electronic tagging programmes are low-risk offenders who would not be sent to prison anyway. Electronic tagging therefore offers no alternative to prison for people unlikely to receive prison sentences to begin with.

As a result, the suggestion that tagging will reduce prison numbers and budgets falls apart. In fact, it has been argued that tagging can result in an increase in Government spending, as prison costs remain static while additional new monies are poured into the monitoring of offenders who do not require it.

Promises of reduced recidivism are also unproven. The people qualifying for tagging schemes are already at very low risk of reoffending. Tagging does not produce this outcome, it simply monitors a group unlikely to reoffend anyway.

According to a report prepared for the Canadian government on electronic monitoring (EM): "One of the most telling findings was that the recidivism rate for the EM offenders was not different from the rate for probationers after controlling for offender risk . . . This lack of difference questions the cost savings value of EM."

Ironically, the clearest refutation of these arguments can be found in the Minister's speech itself, which began with proposing electronic monitoring as means of reducing prison numbers and concluded with a commitment to build 800 new prison spaces. If the Department of Justice truly believes that electronic tagging will reduce prison numbers and free up prison places, why do we need a 25 per cent increase in prison beds?

Far from being a solution to our prison problems, electronic tagging is a technology in search of a rationale.

Rick Lines is the Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust

© The Irish Times