Electronic monitoring and penal excess

Mike Nellis critically appraises a recent Policy Exchange report and calls for a better debate on what drives the growth of electronic monitoring.

Although England and Wales still has the largest number of people on electronic monitoring (EM) in the whole of Europe, any lingering hopes that this would impact significantly on the prison population (as it has helped  to do elsewhere) were long ago dashed, and the use of EM here arguably represents a distinct form of “penal excess”. This is not likely to change and may even get worse. 

A strong and in part useful critique of the England and Wales approach to EM has recently been made by the right of centre think tank Policy Exchange; it claims that prevailing arrangements are not delivering value for money, have stifled innovation in EM and held back the contribution that it might otherwise have made to public safety. It attacks our Ministry of Justice-managed duopoly of service provision, in which lucrative contracts are awarded to two large companies  – G4S and Serco  – and favours instead a free open market, with local level contracting, maybe orchestrated by the new Police Commissioners. This, they think, might enable Police Forces and Probation Trusts to tender for EM themselves, which is as it should have been, long ago. The Probation Assocation and the Probation Chiefs’ Association have welcomed this possibility.

Policy Exchange personnel 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: although not all its Anglo-US comparisons are fair or apt, it raises still unanswered questions about corporate profit and “value for money” here, which were taken forward in a BBC radio “File on 4: investigation on October 23rd http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fileon4 ).

So far, all so useful.  Policy Exchange, however, is unduly enamoured of GPS tracking technology, which it mistakenly regards as an inherently superior form of EM  to radio frequency technology (which still predominates here, and worldwide), seeing it as something which will at last fulfill the original promise of effective surveillance of offenders that conventional curfew tagging has thus far failed to deliver. Some police officers are also becoming interested in GPS tracking, not only for high risk sex offenders in a MAPPA context, but in relation to persistent and prolific offenders, the latter largely on the basis of an undeniably interesting project in Hertfordshire.

One of Policy Exchange’s possible scenarios for the future is 140,000 such offenders GPS tracked within five or six years – an unprecedented expansion which, in effect, would normalise its use for persistent and prolific offenders. GPS tracking has rightly found small, sensible, niche uses in mainland Europe, from which England and Wales could usefully learn  – approximately 50 sex offenders are tracked in France, 30 in the Netherlands – but Policy Exchange is unwittingly playing into the same culture of indiscriminate overuse – penal excess –  that has bedevilled the use of EM in this country and vitiated much of the good that it once might have done. This outcome is not, of course, a foregone conclusion in England and Wales, nor is it  Policy Exchange’s only scenario, but anyone who thinks that it is beyond the realms of possibility does not understand the drivers of EM, or why, worldwide, it continues to expand.

So how would one understand EM better, inform oneself about developments in other countries, and explore its ethics, its commercial context and the fruits of research on it? “Electronically Monitored Punishment: Critical and International Perspectives”  edited by Mike Nellis, Kristel Beyens and  Dan Kaminski (London: Routledge) helps with this. The editors have assembled an international group of contributors to assess 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 is already done in work with offenders in the community.  Although it has techno-utopian roots, EM in some shape or form is here to stay – 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, maybe alongside other community measures, maybe instead of them.  What policymakers 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, or lack of this, will depend on what “we” come to think matters most in working with offenders.

But we do, first of all, need a better perspective on what drives EM, and both the Policy Exchange report, and the Nellis, Beyens and Kaminski book are both places to start.

Mike Nellis is Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice at University of Strathclyde. ‘Electronically Monitored Punishment’ edited by Nellis, Beyens and Kaminski was published in October 2012.

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