Legal: Monitoring new ideas in offender management

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Electronic monitoring (“tagging”) has been available for offenders in Scotland since 2002, but it could – and should – be used far more creatively and effectively than it has been.

That was the thrust of a seminar – the first of two – organised by the University of Strathclyde Centre for Law, Crime and Justice on 10 May and chaired by Joe Griffin from the Scottish Government.

The key speakers were Jan Bungerfeldt, former head of electronic monitoring (EM) in Sweden, and Norman Brown, communications director for G4S, the commercial organisation which took over delivery of EM in Scotland in April 2013 from Serco, the previous provider.

The aim was to compare how EM has been used in the two countries, and to make sheriffs and criminal justice social workers in Scotland – the seminar’s main target audience – aware of other, perhaps better, ways of “doing EM”.

It is now possible to use technologies other than radio frequency to monitor and enforce the presence or absence of a person at a single location, usually their home. GPS satellite tracking of an offender’s movements, and “sobriety bracelets” which remotely monitor the intake of alcohol have potential which Scotland should at least consider.

Bungerfeldt explained how electronic monitoring had from its beginnings in Sweden in 1994 been part of the prison and probation service, not, as in Scotland, administered by a private-sector provider under contract to central government. The consequence was that it was much easier to integrate EM with social work support in Sweden – and subsequently in other Scandinavian countries – to create a viable, intensive alternative to short custodial sentences. Despite some initial professional misgivings towards “surveillance technology”, this has been politically uncontentious. Swedish probation officers are used to incorporating EM into their sentence plans in a way that their Scottish counterparts are not.

In Scotland, EM is largely a deliberately unintegrated, standalone measure, whether used as a sentence or a form of early release. Where it is used as a parole requirement, there may be a de facto integration with other measures, particularly for sex offenders who are supervised under multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA).

The most striking difference between Sweden and Scotland is the way in which in the former, EM has been systematically used to replace short custodial sentences. In Scotland, which is notionally committed to reducing the use of short sentences, EM has barely figured in the debate about how to do that.

Legal, judicial and institutional differences between the two countries mean that Scotland could never exactly emulate the Swedish way with EM. But the seminar appears to have served a useful purpose, referred to by the First Minister in his announcement last Thursday of a consultation on what EM might do for Scotland.

If, in the course of a rethink, the Scottish Government decides down the line to incorporate EM within a statutory criminal justice social work organisation, rather than leaving it with a private sector contractor, that might well be progress: at least criminal justice social work would not be able to bat away EM as someone else’s business, as present arrangements allow them to do. If, as in Sweden, EM were “in-house”, social workers would have to confront the ethical challenges it entails (which do not all point against its use).

We cannot, however, wait five years, until the end of G4S’s contract, to begin better using EM in Scotland.

Norman Brown has a criminal justice social work background, as well as having worked for all three of the private companies that have delivered EM in Scotland. In his presentation he made clear what some of the past difficulties have been but set out a clear way forward, which could bring about improvements even within existing institutional frameworks.

Inspired by Swedish ideals of good EM practice, it is to be hoped that all relevant stakeholders will respond to his astute and informed understanding of what could be done to improve things here.

• Mike Nellis is emeritus professor of criminal and community justice, University of Strathclyde School of Law