Published on 12 Jul 2013 Sections ,

Is electronic tagging too costly and out of date?

In the wake of revelations about overcharging by Serco and G4S over electronic monitoring of offenders, Channel 4 News asks if tagging is in need of an upgrade.

Justice Minister Chris Grayling revealed that the two companies had charged for monitoring people who were actually back in prison, who had already left the country or, in a few cases, where “the subject was known to have died”.

The findings are the result of an independent audit instigated in May when significant anomalies in respect of billing arrangements began to surface during the process of preparing for a new round of contracts, due to be awarded shortly.

The audit has shown that overcharging goes back at least to 2005, and may date back as far as the previous contract, which was agreed in 1999.

Last year Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) found that 59 per cent of tagged offenders receive a warning, with more than a third sent back to court following more serious violations.

HMIP also found that offenders could break the terms of their curfew for up to two hours before receiving a warning, and for a total of four hours over numerous occasions before court action was considered.

Electronic tagging

Electronic tagging devices for people released from prison as a “low risk”, or suspects on bail, was introduced by the government in 1999.

The tagging equipment consists of a tag and monitoring unit and is based on radio frequency technology.

The tag is fitted to the subject’s ankle and the monitoring unit is located in the home or other place of curfew. It acts as a transmitter and sends signals to the monitoring unit, which in turn sends signals to a control centre

All movements in and out of the home and other activities, such as removal of the tag or tampering with the equipment are reported to a control centre mananged by G4S or Serco.

The system is programmed to flag up any event which constitutes a violation of the curfew.

Security expert Professor Alan Woodward from the University of Surrey said: “The system [itself] is really cost-effective.

“But there is a lot of automation going on [before the probation office is informed of any infringement].”

GPS upgrade

Current tags only monitor whether an offender is present at their curfew address during their curfew period.

Ministers have raised concerns about whether or not the tags are effective in tracking high-risk offenders such as sex-offenders.

Under new proposals, new GPS electronic tags would be used to monitor the movements of offenders up-to 24-hours a day.

However Dr Markus Kuhn, a lecturer in computer science at the University of Cambridge, questioned whether or not GPS would be effective in stopping people breaking their curfew.

He told Channel 4 News: “GPS is not very expensive, the problem is that it hardly works indoors.”

Mike Nellis, professor of criminal and community justice at the University of Strathclyde, admits GPS “has its limitations” but says “it’s much cheaper”.

He said: “It’s driven by mobile phone technology.

“GPS is not perfect but it is perfect enough [for the police].”

Professor Woodward, however, warned that there could be civil rights issues involved in “giving GPS to a private company”.

Cost concerns

Questions have also been raised about the cost of outsourcing the service to private firms such as G4S and Serco.

Think tank Policy Exchange said in 2012 the current arrangements were too expensive.

It said £70m would be saved if tagging was done by police or probation officers instead of private firms.

Policy Exchange said that for each offender, electronic monitoring cost £13.14 per monitored day in England and Wales, while the equivalent in the US was £1.22.