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Mike Nellis’s blog: new directions and interesting times in electronic monitoring

2013 May 13

Electronically Monitored Punishment International and Critical PerspectivesThese are interesting times for electronic monitoring. G4S take over the service delivery contract from Serco in 2013 and, with the blessing of the Scottish government will seek to promote a model of EM that is more integrated with other forms of offender supervision. To get the best out EM – to make sure it is used wisely and well – integration is indeed desirable, although there are better and worse ways of doing it, and some mainland European countries have things to teach is in that respect.

Whether “better integration” is actually feasible across the statutory-private divide, no matter the good intentions on either side, is problematic. A recent Joint Inspectorate (probation, police and courts) report in England and Wales, with the euphemistic title “It’s Complicated”, noted negligible progress on its recommendation for greater operational integration in an earlier report four years ago, and within the limits of its mandate – it cannot criticise the policy of outsourcing to the private sector as such – it goes as far as it can to question the feasibility of achieving meaningful integration across such a divided structure of service delivery. The Inspectorate can’t openly recommend the Swedish model of using EM, which since their first pilots in 1994 has always been embedded in a probation-service based intensive supervision programme, but it would be a far better way to do EM, in Scotland as well as England and Wales. G4S deserve their chance to show that integration is possible, but in the long run, as Scotland seeks Nordic inspiration on a number of fronts, we should be looking further afield for better ways of using EM in the context of a progressive penal policy.

G4S logoA far stronger critique of the England and Wales approach to EM came from a right of centre think tank called Policy Exchange in September. It mounted a powerful critique of the state-managed duopoly of service provision which prevails in south of the border, in which the Ministry of Justice has awarded lucrative contracts to two large companies – G4S and Serco – and tried to scupper plans for a new, soon-to-be signed contract for a similar, but more complicated approach to EM service delivery. Policy Exchange went to the USA and discovered that EM was operated much more cheaply there – usually in statutory sector agencies – than it had ever been in England and Wales: thought not all its Anglo-US comparisons were fair or apt, it raised still unanswered questions about corporate profit and “value for money” (which were taken forward in a BBC radio File on 4 investigation on October 23rd).

True to its political roots, Policy Exchange see a free open market, with local level contracting, as the solution to the state-sponsored duopoly pertaining now, which, they think, apart from not delivering value for money, has stifled innovation in EM and held back the contribution that it might have made to public safety. One consequence of a free open market may well be local Police Forces and Probation Trusts running EM themselves, which would be good in itself, but Policy Exchange is specifcally enamoured with GPS tracking technology, which it regards as an inherently superior form of EM to the radio frequency technology currently used to enforce Restriction of Liberty orders (and still the commonest technology, worldwide). It sees GPS as likely to fulfill the promise of effective surveillance of offenders that, in its terms, conventional curfew tagging to a single place has failed, and will always fail, to deliver.

There is a coterie of police officers who are becoming interested in GPS – one of them writes the introduction to the Policy Exchange report – not only for high risk sex offenders in a MAPPA context, but in relation to persistent and prolific offenders. One of Policy Exchange’s scenarios for the future is 140,000 such offenders GPS tracked within five or six years. GPS has found small, sensible niche uses in mainland Europe – 50 sex offenders are tracked in France, 30 in the Netherlands – the Policy Exchange scenario is a huge step too far. This outcome, it is fair to say, is not a foregone conclusion in England and Wales, but anyone who thinks that it is beyond the realms of possibility does not understand EM, or why, worldwide, it continues to expand.

So how would you understand EM better, inform yourself about developments in other countries, and explore its ethics, its techno-utopian roots, its commercial context and the fruits of research on it? As it happens I’ve just published an edited collection with Kristel Beyens and Dan Kaminski – Electronically Monitored Punishment: Critical and International Perspectives (Routledge). Between us an international group of contributors get to grips with what EM really means for criminal justice, acknowledging its potential without ever being unmindful of its very genuine dangers, and the threat it could pose to the best of what we already do to work with offenders in the community. The thing is, EM in some shape or form is not going to go away – it is one affordance among many that can easily be customised, for penal purposes, from the ordinary information and communication technologies that pervade our lives, and from here on in it will always be an option for penal policymakers to consider. What they make of it, – the precise shape and form of EM that emerges, the scale of its use, the degree of integration with (and subordination to) other services depends on us and what we think matters most in working with offenders. But we do, first of all need to be better informed – and the Joint Inspectorate and Policy Exchange reports, and our book are good places to start.

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