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Home > Politics

Electronic Tagging: Justice on the Cheap

15 October 2006

Oops. It turns out that the policy of tagging crims has not been wholly successful, with more than 1,000 violent crimes, including five murders, being committed by prisoners released early with electronic tags. Of course, there's no cut-and-dried way of predicting what people are going to do, but it's a track record that doesn't really inspire confidence.

Tagging is an interesting concept. In theory it's an excellent way of making people observe a curfew, a useful tool in what can loosely be described as 'shit crimes' - not grand larceny but dickhead kids getting wasted and joyriding or setting fire to wheelie bins while firmly believing themselves to be Scarface. It's also a good way of making the punishment fit the crime - UK law generally avoids punitive sentences, instead keeping an eye on rehabilitation, and tagging avoids people who aren't a menace to society going to prison, which, by all accounts, isn't terribly nice. (For a make-up-your-own-mind success story,go here.)

However, the reality is a bit different. Whatever the ideals behind tagging, it's a cheapo way of not putting people in prison, and you have to wonder at what stage rehabilitation becomes financial expediency, as demonstrated by the recent 'prisons crisis'. And the failings of tagging can't just be rationalised away as 'system failure'. It's easy to be objective and say 'It's a system that isn't working properly and needs a review', and another to get stabbed by someone who should really be in prison.

And quite apart from the obvious failings of tagging on a macro scale (5,000 violent crimes, for fuck's sake) the nuts-and-bolts working of tagging looks definitely flawed. A friend of this contributor was (justifiably) tagged, and while talking to the two women who had to apply the tag, he discovered they were
frequently terrified about tagging people because, curiously enough, people don't like being tagged and become violent. It's a micro-anecdote, but it does reinforce the idea that tagging is a stop-gap solution. You'd assume that tags would be applied with at least some police supervision, to avoid the risk of technicians being attacked, but you'd be wrong. It smacks of corner cutting, simply because so many taggees are being tagged precisely because they have a history of violent and erratic behaviour.

The awful thing about the failings of tagging is that no one seems to be accountable for it. The backdrop to the failings of tagging is a real crisis in the UK's prison system, but there doesn't seem to be any real plan to deal with it. When 500 or so police cells were freed up this week for prison overspill, the reaction from the government seemed to be that it was a triumph when the places weren't needed.

It's not surprising that government has to crisis-manage at times, but it's disturbing that short-term, low-cost measures like tagging are constantly employed. We'd be tempted to say that nothing will be done about the failures of tagging until something *really* terrible happens, but you can't get much more terrible than being murdered.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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