Thursday, 15 May 2008

What is the point of (electronic) tagging?

Some of you may have read in the BEP about the somewhat bizarre case of Peter Ogden, the 73 year old man who has been electronically tagged and subjected to a curfew after being convicted of failing to report a road traffic accident. He has also been banned from driving for a year. Leaving aside whether or not Mr Ogden was guilty of that offence (his account of the incident is in the BEP article), the question remains: does the punishment fit the crime?

I spoke to a journalist from ITV today, before appearing on their evening news programme. She had asked for a briefing from the Ministry of Justice on the use of tagging. They described electronic monitoring as "a credible alternative to custody" which can "introduce regularity into often chaotic lifestyles" and "disrupt the pattern of offending behaviour".

I have no problem with that: if, for example, you have young criminals who prowl the streets at night, breaking into houses or stealing cars, or drunks who are constantly picking fights in pubs and carrying out assaults, a curfew monitored by electronic tagging could be an effective way of dealing with them rather than sending them to prison. It protects the public, eases the burden on the prison population, and reduces the likelihood of them reoffending (at least until the tagging is over).

But Mr Ogden is not a career criminal, or a persistent offender, or a neighbourhood nuisance. His only previous conviction is for a speeding offence. There is no suggestion that he caused the accident through dangerous or even careless driving (the woman was hit first by another car, and that driver has not been prosecuted). And yet he is now being confined to his home between the hours of 4pm and 11pm, with an electronic tagging device attached to his leg. I can't see what purpose is being served by this at all.

I've briefly spoken about this to a Home Office minister, just in passing, and will be writing to Jack Straw to seek his views on the appropriateness of using electronic tagging in such circumstances. I have also tabled a written parliamentary question to see if I can find out how often tagging has been used when people have only been convicted of road traffic offences. I can see it might be justified in the case of a repeat drink driver, or someone who has been convicted of driving whilst disqualified, as an alternative to imprisonment, but as far as I am aware (and it's been 20 years since I worked at a magistrates court, processing hundreds of traffic offences) failing to report an accident isn't even an imprisonable offence. (Although I suppose it must be now, if they can impose an alternative to custody as a sentence). It's very strange.

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