Electronic monitoring is booming. Probation services in almost all Western European countries are experimenting with it, while probation services in most Eastern European countries are considering pilots. Is this foothold of hi-tech in European probation the beginning of a profound change in probation services? Mike Nellis, professor Criminal and Community Justice at the University of Glasgow, comments.

‘In a way, the use of an electronic monitoring programme as a probation tool is inevitable. In every country in Europe society is changing quickly – especially technologically – and probation has to respond to these changes, to modernise its practice. That implies to me that probation should make use of the new care and control techniques that are now available, subject, of course, to ethical considerations. The new global electronic infrastructure means that new opportunities have arisen in the management of offenders.’

Although electronic monitoring programmes are just in an experimental stage, many science-fiction thinkers have fantasised about the future of technological control over offenders. Devices might be developed which will not just register where someone is, but will also ‘act’ to incapacitate them if they break the rules. For instance, an electronic knee lock has been proposed which will force the wearer to kneel if he leaves his house without permission. This form of electronic monitoring does become a substitute for prison bars. ‘That’s very worrying science-fiction thinking’, Nellis says. ‘The producers of electronic monitoring devices have indicated that they are still very far from developing that kind of techniques.’ Hopefully, he says, ‘they will never want to, or be expected to.’

‘Electronic monitoring will never be the probation panacea on its own – it needs to be embedded in rehabilitation programmes. Electronic monitoring programmes help with some offenders; it won’t help with all of them. But probation is always in the business of winning small successes. There are very rarely spectacularly successful results in probation. So anything that helps to win small successes is useful. I firmly believe that electronic monitoring programmes can help to win small successes. Therefore I see electronic monitoring as a key part of the 21st century way of supervising offenders.’

Of course, there’s more to electronic monitoring than simply the technological aspect. For instance: how should it be implemented in respect of probation systems? In England and Wales, the surveillance of people wearing a bracelet is done by private companies, whereas in Sweden, Belgium and Holland it is done by probation services themselves. Nellis: ‘I wouldn’t want a harmonious European model of how to integrate electronic monitoring in probation. There is room for diversity in scope according to what particular countries need. Moreover, all these different approaches and experiences may help each probation service to improve its use of electronic monitoring. Therefore we should tell each other about what we are doing and learn from each other. I think even thirty years from now, it’s highly unlikely that we will all be doing the same thing, but if we haven’t learned from each other, that would be a loss.’

‘From all the systems used now, I personally prefer implementing electronic monitoring within the framework of probation, as is happening in Sweden’, Nellis continues. ‘I would like to think that any probation service can take electronic monitoring into itself and see it as a legitimate extension of its work, and a development of its tradition, rather than as something different and alien. It is not that I would never endorse surveillance being undertaken by private companies. I do believe that there are people in the private sector with a public service ethic. However, the point is that it is harder to get the private sector and the state to work together at ground level than some people think. For that reason, I think developing electronic monitoring within state-run probation services is more simple, more efficient and more modern.’

‘I want to stress that I hope the use of electronic monitoring will develop alongside the traditional 20th century-way of supervising offenders and not instead of it. Traditional forms of probation practice still have a lot to offer. It is important to make relationships with offenders, and to work on restorative justice. We also should not give up on our ideals, for instance reducing the prison population. But to do that, we need to make use of the new options and possibilities that have been created for us in the 21st century. Electronic monitoring is definitely one of these.’

Mike Nellis – mike.nellis@strath.ac.uk

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