Tagging: The good, the bad and the catastrophic
By Diane Cooke
It was 54 years ago that the the electronic monitoring device was first designed by social psychology students at Harvard University. Today it is a significant part of the criminal justice system.
More popularly associated with law-breaking celebrities like Paris Hilton (pictured) or Martha Stewart, the electronic ankle bracelet has been used to track hundreds of thousands of offenders, people out on bail and others.
In the 1960s, twin brothers Robert and Kirk Gable were studying psychology at Harvard under famed psychologists B.F. Skinner and Timothy Leary. They wanted to develop a way to monitor the movements of juvenile offenders so they could encourage them to show up to places on time. It would be a form of positive reinforcement. Using old military equipment, they created a system in which offenders would wear radio devices that communicated where they were.
"The purpose, though, was to give rewards to the offenders when they were where they were supposed to be, that is they were in drug treatment session, or went to school or a job," says Robert Gable, now 80 and living in Berkeley, Calif. "And then we would signal them that they were eligible for a reward."
The rewards were simple — a free haircut, pizza, concert tickets — all to inspire the offenders to behave better.
Today, however, the electronic tag is mainly used for freeing up jail space in overcrowded prisons.
Last month the UK government was accused of wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on “fundamentally flawed” plans to redesign the electronic tags worn by criminals.
The Public Accounts Committee accused ministers of a “catastrophic waste of public money” over the “shambolic” introduction of the new tags, which is already five years over schedule.
The Ministry of Justice admitted it had made failings during the process, which has so far cost £60m, including at least £7.7m of unrecoverable losses.
The controversy stems from Conservative plans, first announced in 2011, to upgrade the electronic tags used by police and other authorities to monitor an offender’s location and ensure they are meeting conditions such as curfews.
The tags are sometimes handed out as an alternative to a custodial sentence. The Government wants to encourage wider use of the devices because they are cheaper than placing someone in prison.
When appointing private companies to oversee the supply and management of the tags, the Ministry of Justice decided to award four separate contracts and ask the companies to work together.
Since then, the process has been dogged by a series of problems and delays. The tags were due to be ready by November 2013 but will now be rolled out from early 2019 – more than five years late. MPs said they were unconvinced that even this deadline will be met.