By Prof Mike Nellis, Emiterus Professor of Law at the University of Strathclyde. New futures for the Probation Service and electronic monitoring (EM) were envisaged in the Ministry of Justice’s 2012 consultation paper, Punishment and Reform – downgrading the former, upgrading the latter – as part of the wider Transforming Rehabilitation agenda.
While the transformation of the Service – the creation of 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies and the reconfiguration of a state-based National Probation Service – has proceeded apace, the anticipated large-scale expansion of EM, due to begin in late 2014, appears to have foundered, and a start-date postponed to mid-2016.
This is not bad news, because much is wrong with the Ministry’s approach. The means by which the CRC’s nationwide were to access the array of modern EM technologies – radio frequency (for curfews), GPS (for tracking), and emulate the London pilots of transdermal alcohol monitoring, and kiosk monitoring (for office reporting) – have never been clear, and no models of good practice have been offered.
Both the design and procurement of the Ministry’s third EM contract has been severely criticised for its lack of responsiveness to local criminal justice agencies’ needs by free market think tanks Policy Exchange and Reform, who are otherwise in the same political ballpark as the government.
There is an urgent need for more open debate on the place of EM in offender management
in which probation voices are better heard, and these are interesting times in which to undertake that. In February 2014, the Council of Europe (2014), belatedly recognising that EM was an established and evolving feature of many European penal systems, issued a Recommendation delineating a human rights perspective on EM.
Although not addressed solely to probation services – prison services and police forces
also manage EM projects – it is a useful point of reference for probation interests.
The CEP (the European Probation organisation) continues to promote a more integrated model of EM, accepting its utility but aiming always to subordinate its use to probation understandings of ethical and effective practice. Its commitment is sustained by the example on many European countries who manage EM from within modernised public sector probation services, some for almost two decades.
Professor Anthea Hucklesby’s EU-funded, five country (Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, England and Wales) research project on “creativity and effectiveness in EM” will provide much needed insights into the diverse operational realities of EM, and explore its versatility as a penal measure.
Many positive lessons can be learned about EM from abroad, but Scotland and England and Wales themselves make an interesting point of comparison. Scotland has operated an essentially English model of service delivery since 2002, using a single private contractor to deliver a largely stand-alone, curfew model of RF EM, first as a community sentence, later as a form of early release from prison. Its criminal justice social work service, like the Anglo-Welsh Probation Service, mostly stayed aloof from this dubious commercial intrusion into criminal justice, although relationships were never as antagonistic as they became down south.
In 2013 the Scottish Government initiated a public consultation to canvass opinion from all relevant constituencies on the possible future use of GPS technologies with sex offenders, domestic violence perpetrators (and victims) and prolific offenders, as well as the use of transdermal alcohol monitoring, which the police had long wanted to pilot.
Some constituencies were supportive, many were sceptical, but there was a general openness to further exploration. The Scottish Government set up a multi-agency EM Working Party in November 2014, which has brought the right mix of agencies and experts to the table; chances are that future practice will diverge significantly from that emerging in England.
Scottish openness certainly contrasts remarkably with the secrecy surrounding
the Ministry of Justice’s approach in England and Wales (notwithstanding their ongoing
cooperation with Huckleby’s research). The last New Labour government had already planned to move away from a two contractor model (G4S and Serco), and to introduce some GPS tracking alongside the existing RF schemes.
Under the Coalition government the third contract became an unwieldy, multi-contractor arrangement focussed on delivering an all-GPS system, using an as yet to be developed new tag with both GPS and RF capabilities. Public consultation about this, least of all with Probation Trusts as they transitioned into CRCs, but even since, has been zero.
Policy Exchange was a major influence on the Ministry’s ambitious vision, portraying GPS as a vital and timely upgrade from notionally obsolete RF forms of EM, and suggesting 75,000 people per day as a feasible upstream monitoring target. They had however wisely discouraged the Ministry from maintaining the centralised procurement strategy that had prevailed hitherto, favouring commissioning by local agencies, particularly police and probation.
They modelled this on an increasing number of existing Integrated Offender Management schemes which were making creative use of GPS tracking with persistent and prolific offenders, which had grown from the ground up since 2010 outwith the auspices of the Ministry.
The Ministry ignored this advice, bullishly defending the new third contract more in terms of its technological innovativeness and alleged value for money than its demonstrable penal utility. As late as February 2015 the Ministry was rightly criticised by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee for still lacking an evidence-base for its anticipated shift towards mass GPS tracking.
Worldwide, there is now an adequate enough evidence-base for EM, documenting many forms of good and bad practice, and suggestive of yet more. The literature cannot be summarised in five minutes, because the different technologies have different effects in different contexts, related to the support services they are (or are not) embedded in.
It is significant that the Campbell Collaboration, which collates evaluations from around the world and publicises meta-analyses of the effectiveness of particular penal interventions, has yet to produce one on EM (despite two attempts) – and not only because there are still too few studies using the random controlled trial method that the Collaboration favours.
But even methodologically sound evaluations are only as good as the practical penal purposes to which particular forms of EM are put, and if those purposes have been ill-thought out, misconceived, pitched too modestly, or pitched too boldly, evaluations will not reveal all that might be possible, and may prematurely discredit, or overrate, EM’s utility.
Not all EM research has been undertaken with probation interests (or values) in mind, sometimes by academics or think tanks for whom the institutional survival or evolution of the Probation Service is a secondary or marginal matter.
Unless one thinks that anything which serves to reduce offending is (or should be) acceptable to probation, it would be unwise for probation simply to “follow the evidence” on EM, for it is possible in an era of austerity that some uses of it will be deemed cost-effective as a crime-suppressant regardless of their fit with probation values or ethics.
The Scottish Government commissioned a literature review of EM’s effectiveness specifically to aid their thinking about the future of criminal justice social work, not as an end in itself. Gill McIvor and Hannah Graham’s (2015) fine report, grounded in the evidence-based axioms of existing good practice in work with offenders, should become the touchstone of all future British debate on EM. It rightly concludes that EM, properly used, can reduce re-offending and potentially create the kind of community sanctions which effect reductions in the use of custody (if the political will is there to do so).
Most of the available global evidence relates to various uses of RF EM, which penally liberal Scandinavian countries have used particularly well, but there is sufficient American evidence of GPS’s value with sex offenders and in domestic violence contexts to warrant further experimentation in other countries. A cautious review of evidence on alcohol monitoring suggests the same.
Messages from offender perspective research on EM are already familiar: EM-house arrest
(especially onerous, full-day versions of it) entails socio-psychological “pains” distinct from those of imprisonment, affects fellow householders in significant ways, and whilst being far from the lenient and undemanding sentence that is sometimes portrayed in the media is usually preferred over imprisonment.
Outside the home the stigma of a visible, wearable ankle bracelet may be intimidating to offenders, and exacerbate difficulties in finding or maintaining employment. Less is certain about the subjective experience of GPS “mobility monitoring”, but some evidence suggests that offenders find it less intrusive than the home confinement entailed by “presence monitoring”, complicating earlier policy assumptions that GPS-based regimes were manifestly higher tariff than RF-based regimes.
Times are changing, perhaps too much. As forms of penal technique, the various EM technologies undoubtedly have the potential to improve some aspects of offender supervision, but not to transform it unless, for purely ideological reasons, government actually wants commercial tech organisations to deliberately marginalise and undermine probation interests.
The old Probation Service made a fatal mistake in not seeking to own EM and operate it themselves: it may not have saved it but it would have shown that the service was alert to the creative affordances of the digital world, and prepared to shoulder responsibility for shaping the way they play out. Paradoxically, the CRCs are currently no more able to integrate EM into offender management than in the days when probation and EM were split between the public and private sectors. In their commitment to all-GPS/no separate RF systems, Policy Exchange and Reform, and the Ministry of Justice itself, go way beyond what the available empirical evidence warrants, but the think tanks, at least, are right to highlight the anomaly of a centralized procurement system which so signally fails to deliver what local criminal justice agencies need from it. The CRCs should demand that this changes soon.
Graham H and McIvor G (2015) Scottish and International Review of the Use of Electronic Monitoring. Part 1- Purposes, Uses and Impact of Electronic Monitoring: Part 2 – Comparing Electronic Monitoring Technologies Edinburgh: Scottish Government. http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Scottish-and-International-Review-of-the-Uses-of-Electronic-Monitoring-Graham-and-McIvor-2015.pdf