Expert Comment: Proposals to introduce electronic reporting for offendersTuesday 31 March 2015
Professor George Mair, Professor of Criminal Justice, discusses the latest proposals to introduce electronic reporting for offenders.
Almost 23 years ago, in October 1992, I attended a meeting in New York with the local probation department and judges. I was working for the Home Office and was on a visit to the USA to study probation projects in several states. The main item discussed was the introduction of reporting kiosks for low-risk offenders on probation. Essentially, this meant that the offender in question would simply record electronically his or her attendance to inform the probation department that he/she was still alive and in touch. The reason for this extraordinary measure was simple: the probation department had to cut costs and a high proportion of their offenders were low-risk. On my return to London, when I told Home Office officials and probation officers of this initiative it was always greeted with incredulity – ‘it could never happen here’.
Well, it is now about to happen here. Sodexo, which is responsible for six of the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies, is planning to introduce biometric reporting kiosks. This is in response to the need to make reductions in staff (and presumably to ensure that the company makes a profit). It is claimed that offenders will be able to check-in using fingerprint recognition technology, and to request a face-to-face meeting with a probation officer if necessary. Only those assessed as low-risk will be included. It is certainly true that a considerable number of those subject to community orders are low-risk, but this does not mean that they do not require the assistance of a probation officer to help with their problems. And levels of risk can change.
It is only a matter of weeks since most of probation was privatised in England and Wales and already the emphasis on cutting costs is visible. This is bound to have an impact upon the effectiveness of work with offenders. If Sodexo introduce electronic kiosks for reporting, then it is likely that other companies will do the same. How soon will it be before thousands of offenders subject to a court order are not being seen by a probation officer for the bulk of their orders? Whatever has happened to the National Standards which were introduced in the early 1990s to ensure consistency in probation practice? Probation has never been in the forefront of electoral debate, but serious questions need to be asked of our political leaders if electronic reporting is to be future of probation.