Briefing: Use of tags for ‘at risk’ children

Electronic tags are to be rolled out across the youth secure estate. How will they work, what are the limitations and does the sector support them?

Electronic tags are used as a “protective, supportive and safeguarding measure” for children at risk of reoffending or gang involvement. Picture: Stocksolutions/Adobe Stock
Electronic tags are used as a “protective, supportive and safeguarding measure” for children at risk of reoffending or gang involvement. Picture: Stocksolutions/Adobe Stock

Youth courts across England and Wales are now able to order that children aged under 18 involved in, or at risk from, crime be fitted with electronic tags to monitor their whereabouts following a successful pilot in London last year.

The GPS tags are to be used as an alternative to custody, according to Youth Justice Board guidelines, which clearly state they should not be used to toughen sentences.

The tags have been introduced as a “protective, supportive and safeguarding measure” for vulnerable children and young people at risk of reoffending or from county lines gangs and violent crime, guidance from the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers (AYM) adds.

The scheme was piloted in London with eight children receiving GPS location tags after leaving custody since November 2019. AYM reports show six of these are still in use and classed as “live”.

Despite the low number of participants, youth offending team (YOT) case managers have lauded the trial a success. “Using the tags has helped with the management of children in the community,” one case manager said.

How do GPS-enabled tags work?

According to a guide provided to YOTs by HM Prison and Probation Services (HMPPS), children suitable for this type of monitoring will be fitted with a satellite-enabled ankle tag, provided by the Electronic Monitoring Services (EMS).

The tag monitors a child’s location 24 hours a day using GPS technology, while a home monitoring unit (HMU) will be installed in the child’s place of residence. It will allow for “easy communication with the HMPPS monitoring centre” and will provide a place to charge the tag.

How will tags be used?

Tags will ensure a child’s compliance with exclusion zones and curfews, as well as providing YOTs with data about a child’s whereabouts. The stipulations of each individual tag will be decided by the youth courts, with recommendations for location monitoring recommended by YOTs following release from custody.

Exclusion zones can be set using boundaries around specific places or buildings and can be tailored to be active for specific days and times.

“This may be necessary to ensure a child’s attendance at activities or to restrict access to areas deemed to put the child at risk of contact with gangs,” HMPPS guidance states.

How will data be acted upon?

If a child breaks a curfew or enters an exclusion zone, the EMS will be immediately notified. All alerts will be investigated and information will be passed on to a “responsible officer” named by the youth court or youth custody service (YCS).

YOTs can recommend certain children for location monitoring through the youth court as part of post-custody recommendations. If approved, this data can be applied for retrospectively from the EMS for reasons including breach of curfew or exclusion zone restrictions, and to prove or disprove a crime.

Location monitoring may also be used in cases involving children at risk from county lines drug dealing, gangs activity, knife crime and those with complex safeguarding needs. However, “the vulnerability of the child, including learning needs and health must be taken into account before considering location monitoring”, the guidance adds.

Who is eligible for tags?

Children subject to court imposed bail, remand to local authority accommodation, youth rehabilitation orders, home detention curfews and detention and training orders are all eligible.

However, location monitoring is not available for children subject to court imposed bail, remand to local authority accommodation and youth rehabilitation orders.

HMPPS guidance states they must also have a fixed address with an electricity supply, live in an area where location monitoring is available and have a parent or guardian with them for tag fitting.

However, special circumstances must apply for children subject to home detention orders and detention and training orders who were not deemed eligible for early release or had their sentences extended.

Guidance states: “Post early release period the child must, in accordance with YCS guidance, be assessed as high/very high risk of serious harm and high/very high risk of reoffending to be considered for electronic monitoring.”

Whether it will act as a suitable option to reduce custodial sentences for young offenders is yet to be seen, with numbers fitted with tags expected to be around 30 per year TO CHECK.

What are the benefits?

According to the Youth Justice Board and HMPPS, location monitoring tags “should offer appropriate response to patterns of offending” if they are “used in a necessary and proportionate way”.

“The support needs of the child will always be the primary purpose for utilisation of location monitoring,” official guidance says.

GPS location monitoring tags will provide additional support for children to “comply with their order, help resist negative influences and act a psychological deterrent”, HMPPS states.

Tags will also provide additional safeguarding, reduce the risk of exploitation to county lines, increase a child’s ability to “resist peer pressure” and help rule children out of crimes, the service adds.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says: “GPS tags provide judges and probation officers with an additional safeguarding measure to deter young offenders from crime and exploitation.”

Any negative side effects?

According to an MoJ report into a pilot scheme on the use of location monitoring tags with adults, it was found that a lack of resources and equipment could act as a barrier to the effective use of the technology.

Meanwhile, a group of wearers described how “wearing the GPS tag had led to feelings of increased anxiety, particularly about breaching their licence conditions”, the report states. “Others reported feelings of paranoia due to being monitored,” it adds.

Critics have highlighted issues of stigmatisation, which was mirrored by those taking part in the pilot.

“Concerns around being judged or stigmatised for wearing the GPS tag further contributed to these feelings. Depending on their circumstances, wearers were concerned about having to explain why they were wearing the tag.

“In some instances, wearing the tag left them feeling like they had no option but to disclose information about their offence to those around them,” the report states.

One wearer said it deterred them from looking for work as they felt they would be unfairly judged. Another explained that the physical size of the tag stopped them from wearing boots that were required for working on construction sites.

Despite these concerns, early feedback from YOT managers and government bodies appears positive.

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