Criminals to be tracked by satellite rather than given a jail term under new scheme after North East pilot

The GPS tag scheme aims to cut short jail terms. Photo Tim Ockenden/PA Wire.
The GPS tag scheme aims to cut short jail terms. Photo Tim Ockenden/PA Wire.

Thousands of criminals will be tracked by satellite in a new scheme designed to protect victims and drive down the use of short jail sentences.

Justice Secretary David Gauke has announced the national rollout of GPS tags, which provide 24/7 location monitoring of offenders in the community.

They have already been put to test in the North East under a pilot scheme and are now set to be used elsewhere across England and Wales.

Officials say the programme will act as a deterrent to stop victims being targeted again, such as in domestic abuse or stalking cases.

If a tagged individual is found in an "exclusion zone", an alert will automatically be triggered and sent to police or probation services.

Those found to have breached their conditions face being recalled to prison or brought before the courts.

The scheme also forms part of efforts to strengthen community sentences, which ministers say are more effective in rehabilitating some offenders than locking them up for a few weeks.

Mr Gauke said: "GPS tagging will help to better protect victims and give them the reassurance that perpetrators will not be able to breach an exclusion zone without triggering an immediate alert.

"I am confident that this important new technology will become a vital tool to increase public protection and strengthen options for tougher community sentences."

The technology could be used to monitor individuals who are placed on court bail as well as convicts serving community orders or suspended sentences.

Tags could also imposed on offenders released under the home detention curfew scheme or on licence following a life or indeterminate sentence.

Location monitoring can be used to enforce an exclusion zone, which an offender or individual on bail is barred from entering, and maintain a given distance from a specified address, such as a victim's home.

It could also help track attendance at rehabilitation programmes.

Between October 2016 and March 2018, the Ministry of Justice carried out a pilot in eight police force areas in England.

A report on the findings says partner agencies were "enthusiastic" about the potential of the tags to help monitor and manage compliance with bail, sentence and licence conditions.

While the process of fitting tags was thought to have gone "smoothly", concerns were raised about the time between the decision to fit a tag and it actually being fitted.

In one case an individual remained without a tag over a weekend, the report said, adding: "Participants felt that the longer this took, the greater the risk of reoffending and/or of harm to victims."

Some staff and wearers felt that the tags were "too large", while problems were reported with charging them, the study found.

It added that alerts were sometimes triggered due to accidental damage.

The MoJ said the findings of the evaluation were "largely positive" and issues raised have been taken on board to ensure the roll-out runs smoothly.

The tags, which are fitted around the subject's ankle, have so far been introduced in the North West, Midlands and North East.

They will be available across England and Wales by the summer, according to the ministry.

Officials anticipate that around 4,000 individuals will be GPS-tagged in a 12-month period, with a maximum of 1,000 tags in use at any one time.

The devices will be in addition to curfew tagging, which is used in around 60,000 cases a year.

While the existing technology confirms whether someone is present at a particular address at a particular time, the new tags record information on whereabouts at all times.

An offender who participated in the pilot said: "I've walked in an exclusion zone before, not realising.

"That was before I had the tag on, so I wasn't really bothered about getting seen.

"Now, with the tag, I knew full well that if I go in to that exclusion zone, I'm going to get seen no matter what."

Deputy Chief Constable Jon Stratford, the national policing lead for electronic monitoring, said: "The potential benefits of using this new technology to better protect victims are recognised by the police service and we're working closely with the Ministry of Justice to identify a suitable joint implementation programme."

Proposals to expand the electronic monitoring regime date back to 2011.

In 2017, a highly critical report from the National Audit Office laid bare a catalogue of failings by the MoJ, which was forced to abandon its original plan to develop a "bespoke" tag.