Rory Geoghegan is the Head of Criminal Justice at the Centre for Social Justice. Rory previously spent five years policing London, most recently spending three years on the beat in Lambeth.
The National Audit Office’s critique of the Ministry of Justice’s electronic monitoring programme stands in stark contrast to the great work undertaken locally across England and Wales, where police-led tagging programmes are putting GPS tags to creative and innovative use to fight crime, safeguard the vulnerable, and protect victims.
Five years ago, here on ConservativeHome, I called on tne then Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, to get tough on crime and smart on tagging.
That call is as valid today as it was then – a fact evidenced by the NAO’s report – but there’s something even simpler that today’s Justice Secretary, David Lidington, could do.
While recent years have seen the national tagging service rocked with scandals, delays and troubles, on a brighter note the Ministry of Justice now has a number of new GPS tagging pilots in progress. Alas, the pilots are flawed – with police, offender managers, and offenders themselves being denied the fullest benefits the technology allow.
The published Code of Practice on the use of the data generated by the tags worn by offenders prevents the automatic screening of offender locations against police recorded crimes. This is a problem because one of the great benefits of a tag is that offenders know it can tie them to a specific location at a specific time, increasing the risk of detection and helping change behaviour.
In other countries – where GPS tagging is not new and is far more common – tagging location data is automatically screened against recorded crimes, allowing police to swiftly catch guilty (or eliminate innocent) offenders and providing those trying to turn their lives around with a compelling reason to choose a better path.
The Ministry of Justice’s position on screening, by contrast, ties the hands of police and probation officers, and risks allowing offenders to commit more crimes. For some this will mean an offending ‘spree’ going on longer, for others it potentially enables offending to escalate in severity.
We also know that crime disproportionately hits the least well off and those least able to protect themselves.
The Justice Secretary should therefore repeal this edict – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is easy to do: it doesn’t require legislation, and promises to better protect the public and rehabilitate offenders. It would also help generate valuable data on the effectiveness of tagging, adding to an evidence base in need of development.
By repealing the prohibition, the Justice Secretary can in a single act make a tangible difference to the lives of ordinary people in the pilot areas – and those on the tags too. By enabling the pilots to be run properly, the insights and lessons can help ensure future GPS tagging is used to maximum effect.
This isn’t some abstract suggestion. For those individuals, families, and communities impacted by crime, the stakes are high. Waking in the night to find a burglar in your home is terrifying.
The Government – not just the police – has a duty to keep people safe and prevent crime. This simple proposal will help ensure tagging can play a far more effective role in the pursuit of a safer society: catching those who do re-offend sooner, and aiding the desistance of those who might otherwise return to a life of crime. It’s proportionate and justifiable.
Police-led schemes that run locations against crimes have made the young and exploited less attractive to the people trafficker, sexual exploiter, gang elder, or drug-dealer. They make a return to crime that bit less attractive for the prolific offender, helping some think twice and choose a better path.
So, if there’s one thing the Justice Secretary could do to make tagging smarter today, it is to enable the automatic screening of tagging data against recorded crimes. While the would-be victims of prevented crimes might not know to thank him, those ex-offenders, keen for every advantage in steering clear of crime and choosing a better path, would certainly be able to.