Why we should electronically monitor alleged perpetrators of domestic abuse

January 28, 2016

Consider this – a charge is brought in a case involving domestic abuse; the alleged perpetrator has not yet been convicted or exonerated but the case is proceeding. The apparent victim is living in fear, and could be in danger. How should society protect her (in most, but not all, domestic violence cases the victim is female) during this period? It is important to remember that the alleged perpetrator stands accused of a crime and has not been proven guilty of anything. The presumption of innocence is an important principle that should not be discarded. So, how do we protect the vulnerable without treating the accused like a criminal?

We currently use some particularly blunt tools to respond to this dilemma. Some perpetrators are remanded in custody and held in prison until a verdict is reached. But prison should, ideally, be reserved for the guilty and not those awaiting trial, although, in some cases it is clearly necessary.

Often, however, the police will be reluctant to recommend that the alleged perpetrator should be remanded in custody and  will simply ask the Magistrate to impose a  Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO). A DVPO provides some relief for the victim because it can require the alleged perpetrator to do the following:

• “Stop him/her from entering, and being within a certain distance, of your home
• Stop him/her from making you leave or excluding you from your home
• Require him/her to leave your home”.

There is no doubt that in some cases, a DVPO is sufficient to cause the alleged perpetrator to alter his behaviour because he fears the consequences of breaching the DVPO.  But experience has shown that DVPOs by themselves can do little to prevent those who are intent on causing harm from doing so.

Given that risk assessment is an inexact science, mistakes will be made and some people will appear to be low risk perpetrators when they are in fact high risk. Women are particularly vulnerable between the point at which the alleged perpetrator is charged and when he is convicted, and, of course, some of the accused will not be convicted. Each of these factors may deter victims from reporting domestic abuse, thus putting themselves at much greater risk.  The aim of an effective policy in this area should therefore be to increase the rate at which  incidents of domestic abuse are reported.

The main problem with using a DVPO to control the behaviour of a domestic violence offender is knowing when the DVPO has been breached. The old-fashioned way of solving this problem is by assigning a police office to physically keep an eye on the alleged perpetrator.  But this is very expensive and, in today’s world, virtually impossible to justify.  Fortunately, however, there is no need to justify it because technology is now available which can do the job both more cheaply and more effectively.

I refer, of course, to Electronic Monitoring (EM) or tagging equipment which allows the police (through the use of GPS technology) to know exactly where the alleged perpetrator is at all times.  Of course, such equipment works only if the perpetrator is wearing the tag at all times.  As the law stands, however, the Police do not have the power to require an alleged perpetrator to be tagged until he has been convicted – so tags can be fitted only to alleged perpetrators who have volunteered to wear them.

Now, if the alternative to wearing a tag is being remanded into Prison, the alleged perpetrator may opt to wear one. However, where Prison is not likely, most alleged perpetrators will not volunteer to wear a tag. Also, most alleged perpetrators who volunteer to be tagged are not necessarily the ones you need to worry about because by volunteering they signal their intent to reform. Clearly, we would not want to invest in the construction and maintenance of a local tagging infrastructure (including the 24/7 monitoring arrangements necessary to make the system effective) if it monitored only the lowest risk alleged perpetrators.  We need to reach those who don’t want to be tagged, too. For this reason, it has been suggested that Judges should be allowed to force alleged perpetrators to wear a tag prior to the verdict in cases of domestic abuse.

GPS-enabled proximity tagging serves both the victim and the alleged perpetrator. It protects the former and permits the latter to live a relatively normal life until the verdict in their case is reached. Tags provide more reassurance for the victim than a DVPO alone because they ensure that  if the alleged perpetrator comes within a certain vicinity of the victim, that victim is alerted by text or phone call. The alleged perpetrator can also be warned by text to change course if he is approaching  a property which he is banned from being near. If the offender then crosses a second line to come even closer to the victim,  the Police can immediately be alerted and intervene.

Proximity (GPS) tags thus help both parties to manage their separation and avoid chance meetings. This feature is particularly important in small communities where the perpetrator and the victim use the same supermarket, Doctor’s surgery or cinema.

Very often in abuse cases the victim has to change their life completely – changing their home and their telephone number means that they can lose contact with friends at a time when they need that support group most. Bilateral GPS monitoring of both the alleged perpetrator and victim allows both parties to manage their disassociation. It also allows the victim to not have to be the one to initiate enforcement proceedings. Victims will not have to choose whether to report an infraction. If a perpetrator comes within a certain distance of the victim, the State should be able to protect them without the victim having to report the alleged perpetrator and face a decision about whether they want the perpetrator in Prison or not.

Tagging gives the victim some power because it permits the victim to know where their alleged perpetrator is and to feel confident when doing everyday chores that they are unlikely to bump into the alleged perpetrator. If you are asking why the alleged perpetrator would not always be told to move in such cases – it is because the system would not want to alert the alleged perpetrator to the location of their victim in cases where both were in a neutral location, e.g. a supermarket, as opposed to a non-neutral location like the family home.

Giving magistrates the power to require alleged perpetrators to wear tags would significantly expand the number of individuals tagged.  However, the marginal cost of adding another tag is low. The main costs of tagging largely revolve around the setting up of the infrastructure itself rather than the number of individuals which that infrastructure serves. Several Police forces – such as Cheshire, Northumbria and Hertfordshire have already purchased GPS tagging equipment but it is underutilised because many alleged perpetrators are unwilling to volunteer to use it and the Courts cannot force them to do so. There is currently a lot of pressure for there to be a change in the law as recently highlighted by Lord Wasserman.

Some practical issues will need to be dealt with to make this happen. For instance, if EM were introduced into a police force, would this mean judges could order it to be used and the police would have to provide it? Tags could become a free good to those who order their use (the judiciary) but not to those who have to pay for it (the Police). If the technology were used in some areas but not others could the Police be liable in cases where a victim is abused and the technology is not used? Clearly, the Government could sponsor pilots of GPS tagging but this would raise complex moral and legal issues. If tagging works to reduce abuse in the tagging areas – compared to the control group of similar areas – this would leave completely unprotected the control group of victims who live in areas where tagging is not used.

It is a sad fact that some victims of domestic abuse choose to re-establish a relationship with their abuser. The reasons for this are complex and cannot be examined here with the sensitivity they deserve. But the practical effects of this happening can be examined. If the victim chooses to leave her part of the paired tagging equipment at home when meeting the alleged abuser, the police would not know that the two had met. This is not much different to cases where a victim and alleged perpetrator meet in defiance of a DVPO now. Clearly, the victim should go back to court and reverse the DVPO so she can see the alleged perpetrator again. But in practice victims often just don’t report consensual breaches of the DVPO and non-reporting has few further cost implications. With EM, there could be cases where the police would be wasting public money ineffectually monitoring people who want to be together. This would be a perverse policy outcome. So it might be more sensible to give the victim a say in how EM is applied in her particular case; for example, by making it easier for the couple to turn it off for particular reasons or at particular times.  This would make GPS tagging much more flexible than a simple DVPO.

In Spain, bilateral tagging is already in place and, as is the case in Portugal, alleged domestic perpetrators can be tagged involuntarily on the recommendation of a regional judge where an alleged perpetrator has been charged but not bailed and there is the chance of an incident happening between charge and conviction. In Spain, since 2009 (when the proximity tagging system was first trialled), there have been no homicides in cases where both the alleged perpetrator and the victim have been monitored.  Only fifteen per cent of the perpetrators have been sent to jail since 2009 for not complying with the programme. Perpetrators are required to remain more than two kilometres away from the victim and as of December 2009 there were just under eight hundred active pairs in the domestic abuse tagging programme in Spain. For those who are accused and think the charges are fabricated, tagging  provides a clear way of proving their innocence – so there are some benefits for the alleged perpetrator too.  For this reason, the scheme is not unpopular with all of them.

For the State, the costs of such a system need to be compared with the cost of the State services that would otherwise be utilised to protect victims.  These include police time, women’s refuges and probation services. The fact is that the costs of EM, once set-up costs are discounted, are likely to be much lower. This is one of many reasons why there is now some pressure for the UK to adopt the system that exists in Spain and Portugal where an alleged perpetrator can be forced to wear a tag when the risk level warrants it, at the recommendation of a Judge. Using EM technology in such cases seems a measured and appropriate policy that the Government should adopt.

GPS tagging should be applied in a targeted and effective manner to prevent violence and keep victims safe, and at this it can be very effective.

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