IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

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Electronic tagging would be "no penal reform", says IPRT

17th January 2005

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has criticised reported plans by Justice Minister Michael McDowell to introduce electronic tagging of offenders, saying that the scheme offers no recipe for penal reform.

"We share the Minister's concern about the urgent need to develop effective alternatives to prison," said IPRT Executive Director Rick Lines. "However there is little evidence that electronic tagging is a way to accomplish this. International experience shows that tagging offers no alternative to prison in practice, as those most often placed on tagging schemes are low-risk offenders who would not normally be sent to prison anyway. Rather than a technology for penal reform, electronic tagging is a technology in search of a rationale."

In response to reports that Mr. McDowell will first implement tagging for people convicted of public order offences, Mr. Lines pointed to recent IPRT research that found less that 6% of those convicted of a public order offence received a custodial sentence. "Electronic tagging offers no alternative to prison for a group where the vast majority are unlikely to receive prison sentences to begin with, and introduces new financial costs to monitor people who would not normally be judged to require it. Therefore the suggestion that tagging will reduce prison numbers and budgets falls apart under scrutiny."

The IPRT also questioned claims that electronic tagging will reduce recidivism.  "The people who qualify for tagging schemes are already at very low risk of re-offending.  Tagging does not produce this outcome, it simply monitors a group unlikely to re-offend anyway," said Mr. Lines.

The IPRT cited a Canadian government study of its electronic monitoring (EM) programme, which concluded "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."(James Bonta, et al., 1999)

The IPRT also criticised the Minister's plans to expand the prison system by 30% to 4,500 places, noting that such a move would make Ireland one of the top five per capita incarcerators in Western Europe, while having one of the lowest crime rates in the region. "The Minister's plan to 'super-size' the prison system offers the clearest illustration that electronic tagging will not produce the outcomes claimed. If the Minister truly believes electronic tagging will reduce prison numbers and free up prison space, why do we need to build over 1,000 new prison places?"

"There is undoubtedly a need to increase the availability of community-based supervision and alternatives to incarceration," said Mr. Lines.  "This was most recently highlighted in the 2004 Auditor General's report on the Probation and Welfare Service which criticised the Government for its continued under-funding of these programmes.  Electronic tagging does not address this need, but rather transfers scarce public monies to the private security firms who operate these schemes."