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Hi-tech tag plan to track offenders

Hi-tech new tags with GPS technology could soon be used to monitor the movements of offenders serving community sentences, and even to check whether they have been drinking, Downing Street said.

The ankle tags would allow courts in England and Wales to impose curfews and restrictions stopping offenders from visiting particular areas like football grounds or pubs.

The initiative is part of a Government move to stop community sentences being seen as a "soft option". Changes are also planned to make it easier for courts to strip criminals of the proceeds of crime even if they are of relatively low value - such as a wide-screen TV - in the same way they are already able to seize luxury items such as sports cars and yachts.

Prime Minister David Cameron is launching a consultation to be led by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke on the measures, which are likely to be mentioned in the Queen's Speech in May, with legislation to follow in the latter part of the coming session of Parliament.

Mr Cameron said that introducing a greater punitive element to community sentences will make it easier to persuade the public that they are a tough alternative to prison in appropriate cases. The move will inevitably lead to suggestions that ministers are hoping to cut prison numbers by increasing the proportion of offenders given community sentences, though Downing Street aides insisted this was not the primary motive for the proposals.

Mr Cameron said: "For too long, community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, soft options. This Government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment. Criminals given a community punishment shouldn't just be able to enjoy life as it was before during their sentence. They should pay for their crimes and I am determined to see this happen."

Most electronic tags currently in use in the UK have a simpler design, with a base station connected to a mains electricity supply in the offender's home. If the tag is not within range of the base during working hours, the authorities are automatically alerted, but the tag cannot tell police where an offender has gone when he is not at home.

New-style tags with global positioning satellite (GPS) technology have been trialled in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, allowing law enforcement authorities to track the movements of tagged offenders and giving them the option of being alerted if they go into a particular housing estate, shopping centre or pub or if they leave their home area. A different system, piloted in Glasgow, features a tiny needle inside the tag, which can repeatedly take blood samples from the wearer and alert the authorities if they show evidence of alcohol intake.

Justice Minister Nick Herbert said the most violent and disruptive drinkers would be given Sobriety Orders, based on a successful US trial. Offenders, monitored either through the tag or by regular breath tests at a police station, could face jail if they were found to have been drinking.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "The Tory-led Government have a recurring obsession with a prison population reduction target of 3,000. This overrides all other objectives. Instead of creating effective community punishments that keep communities safe and deliver reductions in reoffending their focus is in bringing down prison numbers to fill the black hole in the Justice Secretary's budget."

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