Protecting the public and preventing reoffending is pivotal to community safety and successful rehabilitation. We examine the insights of an operational probation officer who wore an electronic monitoring tag for one week to test its effectiveness at managing risks, assisting rehabilitation, and creating behavioural change.
Effective offender management in the community is essential. This may take the form of in-person checks, attending meetings or engaging with partners such as substance misuse agencies or mental health professionals to support risk reduction.
In cases where it’s necessary, proportionate and serves a clear purpose, we must look to integrate technological advances into the justice system that meet the needs of an evolving society. One such technology is electronic monitoring (EM) tagging. As the Head of the Operational Probation Delivery Unit (PDU), I wore an electronic monitoring tag for a week of GPS trail monitoring. I created multiple exclusion zones (EZ) and an inclusion zone (IZ), specifically chosen to represent the different types of movements of people on probation, including:
- registered sex offenders (RSO)
- domestic abuse (DA) perpetrators on restraining orders
- attendance at support agency appointments
- re-engagement as an alternative to recall
- analysis of movement patterns in relation to, for example, known drug dealing hotspots and social establishments well-known within local probation circles
- the system’s accuracy for multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA) management
My experience of wearing an EM tag
During my experiment, I intentionally entered my exclusion zones both on foot and in a vehicle. All these instances were accurately detected and, when matched against EM data, were 100% accurate. I intentionally breached an exclusion zone by just a few metres to check the sensitivity of the tag – this was also included in the breach data report. I deliberately unplugged the receiver station (also a breach), and again this was detected.
Over the week I skirted around my exclusion zones to produce a trail that, while not technically a breach, presented data that could be interpreted as increasing offending opportunities or an indication that I was still interested in a victim or location, all of which was detected. All these tests were aligned to actual events I have seen in my own unit.
Finally, I cut my tag off to see whether it was detected. Of course, it was. It wasn’t particularly difficult to cut the tag off, which is essential for any emergency medical treatment. However, it is strong enough to prevent accidental damage.
The government has an ambitious vision for electronic monitoring based on evidence that community sentences are more effective than short custody sentences at reducing reoffending. It has embarked on a substantial EM expansion programme, confirmed financial investment and taken steps to strengthen the legislative and operational landscape.
Integrate electronic monitoring into offender management
It’s important to note that electronic monitoring is neither an alternative nor a replacement to probation supervision, but within the right infrastructure it can provide the information and insight needed for data-informed and responsive offender management.
My week spent on-tag has strengthened my conviction that electronic monitoring can further a practitioner's professional judgement, enhancing those probation measures aimed at preventing reoffending and protecting the public. A broader picture of a person's behaviour while on probation can be gained by viewing EM data in the context of other multiagency data. For instance, by using GPS trail monitoring we can see whether a domestic abuse perpetrator with an exclusion zone is regularly moving closer to the boundary. When combined with factors that are likely to increase risk, monitoring and control and contingency, this enables us to make a more informed assessment of behaviour and support safeguarding plans.
Creating opportunities and incentives for rehabilitation in safe and inclusive communities
To reduce crime and protect victims, we must ensure offenders have opportunities to meaningfully rehabilitate, turn their lives around and avoid reoffending. Electronic monitoring has the potential to support these priorities by providing both a punitive and a reward element to a community order that allows people on probation to live in the community rather than being sent to prison.
I found the self-motivational aspect of compliance with my ’curfew’ challenging. It requires self-management and consequence management – skills that help reduce reoffending. My every move was monitored, and my curfew was strict. Giving up my freedom in a familiar environment was not an easy option – it left me feeling cut off from the activities I enjoyed. If a judge offered me the choice between unpaid work (UPW) or a period on EM I would not hesitate to choose UPW as the easier option.
The flexibility to reduce or remove the tag as a reward for positive compliance is a great advantage of EM. Even after only a week, I was relieved to remove it. The prospect that one could regain this freedom through good behaviour – which would strengthen self-motivation, consequence management and the crucial feelings of accomplishment and self-respect that support abstinence from crime – is a powerful incentive.
Building capability and confidence
Electronic monitoring drives rigour, discipline, incentives and consequences in community-based offender management as an alternative to custody. It supports informed offender management, providing probation practitioners with data beyond the self-disclosure of people on probation.
The public and sentencers need to have confidence that people on probation in the community are subject to expert supervision which mitigates the risk, frequency and severity of their reoffending while also supporting their rehabilitation. Effective electronic monitoring ensures that any escalation of risk is swiftly detected and dealt with – and offenders feel the weight of that scrutiny. The data it captures enables a tailored approach to an offender’s changing rehabilitative needs and dynamic risk factors.
Reflecting on the data from my own week on-tag, my opinion of electronic monitoring is even more positive than it was before. From a probation practitioner’s operational and strategic perspective, it has a place within the system. It’s about more than just monitoring and control – it’s both a risk management and rehabilitation tool that offers a valuable contribution to evidentiary thresholds. Not to expand and explore its use further would undoubtedly be a missed opportunity.