Electronic monitoring in probation practice

Can probation shape the future use of electronic monitoring?

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The potential benefits of EM

The latest in the probation inspectorate’s Academic Insights series looks at electronic monitoring in probation practice. Published on Wednesday (16 December, 2020) and authored by Professor Anthea Hucklesby and Dr Ella Holdsworth, the briefing investigates the, historically uneasy, relationship between probation and electronic monitoring.

Overview

The authors set the context of electronic monitoring and probation:

“Electronic monitoring (EM) is an integral and growing part of the criminal justice system. The recent introduction of GPS technologies, the planned expansion of remote alcohol monitoring, and the use of EM as a mechanism to reduce prison use during the Covid-19 pandemic all signal that EM will play a significant role in the future of the criminal justice system. Although EM has had a chequered history with probation, advances in EM technologies and understanding about how it works and how it can support probation goals, as well as the restructuring of probation itself, means that there is a significant opportunity for probation to shape its future use.”

A range of approaches

The authors note the wide range of types and uses of EM. In addition to those predominantly used to monitor curfews, there are current trials of GPS monitoring devices which can monitor wearers’ movements outside the home. The briefing highlights six potential benefits of GPS tagging:

  1. supporting rehabilitation and potentially desistence;
  2. facilitating risk management, particularly by providing reassurance to decision-makers that non-compliance would be discovered;
  3. relieving pressure on other rehabilitation services;
  4. helping inform decision making following alleged breaches as a potential for desistance;
  5. safeguarding victims; and
  6. playing a role in exonerating or implicating wearers in offending

There are also, of course, the new “sobriety tags” which monitor alcohol use and a new technology, not yet used in the UK, which enable bi-lateral monitoring, predominantly used in domestic violence/stalking cases. These involve (alleged) perpetrators wearing a tag and victims having a paired device. Alerts are received by both parties when perpetrators come within a specified distance of victims’ devices.

Alcohol monitoring tag

Benefits and drawbacks

Hucklesby & Holdsworth effect provide us with a very useful overview of the EM evidence base. Some of the key benefits of electronic monitoring include:

  • EM can add credibility to bail, sentence and post-custody licence conditions (although take up varies across courts and prisons).
  • A period of EM can be “habit-breaking”; curfews provide a structure to wearers’ lives and allow them to stop seeing people and going to places which are linked to their offending; critically it can provide an excuse for people not to participate in criminal activities. Similarly, an enforced period of abstinence from drink may result in alcohol becoming a less central part of an individual’s life.
  • The evidence suggests relatively high levels of compliance with EM measures – in part, presumably, because of the very high rates of non-compliance being detected.
  • Where the alternative to being tagged is being incarcerated, then, unsurprisingly, many wearers are happy to do so.
There are also a number of potential drawbacks:
 
  • There appears to be no evidence that offending behaviour is continued to be suppressed once the period of EM has been terminated.
  • There can also be adverse consequences for family members when an individual is restricted to home for much longer periods; this is, of course, an issue of particular concern for cases where domestic (or parental) abuse is an issue.
  • Employers may be unhappy about their workers wearing EM devices in the workplace because of the risk of reputational damage.
  • There also many examples when curfew hours may make an individual unable to work or effectively prevent them from seeing family members who are not local.
  • There are also practical issues whereby people who are considered suitable for tags are not placed on EM because they do not have suitable accommodation – householders’ and/or landlords’ consent is also required for wearers to be monitored and this can on occasions be difficult to secure.

Conclusion

The authors note that electronic monitoring is now a permanent fixture in criminal justice systems across the world in its deployment in England and Wales. They recommend that it is important that EM is only used appropriately, ethically and to best effect recommending that the recently published MoJ/HMPPS principles of EM provide a useful framework. The starting point for these principles is that EM should be used with a clear purpose, but also with an appreciation that this will vary according to the criminal justice measure being supported and the circumstances of the case/wearer. The other MoJ/HMPPS principles are that EM should be used in ways which are tailored and proportionate, flexible and responsive, credible, integrated and transparent and with reference to equality.

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