NIACRO responds to Scope NI’s recent article on the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Olwen Lyner NIACRO’s CEO responds to Scope NI’s recent article on the Fourth Industrial Revolution 

Most of us now have personal experience of technological devices and, it would seem that we appear to love them, possibly because we understand their value and we perhaps push to one side any of the concerns we may have about their intrusive nature because we want what they can offer.

In NIACRO’s professional world those responsible for the community supervision of people who have offended have demonstrated their openness to exploring how technological advances could improve the rehabilitation process and offer some degree of scientific approach.

Practitioners are concerned with validated risk assessment; integrity of practice; and supporting practice with robust evidence. And technology has indeed enhanced the working practices of staff who can be contacted while out on visits or attending reporting centres. Furthermore, there is a greater ability to support staff in lone working situations through the use of tracking devices. NIACRO makes use of this technology for lone-working.

More specifically in 2016, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) developed a Changing Lives App to support offenders in Northern Ireland to access necessary supports and to desist from crime. The app helps users to identify the particular problems they are facing and then offers advice and signposts individuals to appropriate support services which can be contacted directly via the app. There is also a journal facility for users to track and share progress. The app is currently undergoing an evaluation (started October 2017) although it has already been replicated by other European Probation services.

This development shines a light on how we in Northern Ireland want to embrace intelligent technology to support desistance. PBNI, with their years of experience in community supervision were ideally placed to lead on the development ensuring that the product was a fit to their values, enshrined in its title “Changing Lives“.

A key issue raised by Nick Garbutt’s article in ScopeNI (17/11/17), entitled “The future of Punishment: Prisons without Bars and Hell on Earth” is the apparent dichotomy between Electronic Monitoring (EM) and human interaction. EM, a mere surveillance tool, can be no replacement for the human interaction that comes through one-to-one supervision, often accompanied by offers of mentoring and onward connection to helping services. This dichotomy, he and others argue, has been exacerbated by the failure of key agencies across the UK to engage in the necessary debate regarding how technologies could better add value to supporting rehabilitation and pro-social behaviours.

Whilst NIACRO believes it is dangerous to ignore the changing landscape in our digital age, we need to proceed with a degree of caution. Interestingly, on 20/11/2017, a Belfast Telegraph article highlighted the identification by security company G4S of a batch of faulty monitoring tags which had been provided by the courts to monitor people’s movements.[1] The discovery resulted in a review of 14 convictions by the courts; convictions relating to tampering with tags may have been incorrect as the fault appeared to lie with the tags and not individuals’ attempts to tamper with them. The article highlighted that there are 300 people with tags in NI for a variety of reasons - bail conditions (primarily) but also as part of a licence condition on release from custody or attached to a community order.

Tagging has not taken off in Northern Ireland to the extent that it has in other parts of the UK. Initially there were concerns about its fit in our post conflict society, not least that those with tags fitted may be subject to threats and intimidation. Latterly, concerns about the motives of private sector companies increasingly delivering a range of court disposals in England and Wales have come to the fore.

Whilst there is no experience of EM in Northern Ireland we ignore the technological possibilities that flow from it at our peril. There may be ideological concerns about the private sector’s profits and whether machines will ‘take over’ from the human contact associated with traditional supervision. Some of the reasons for non-engagement with EM may have merit, but it doesn’t have to be an ‘either or’; machines versus humans.

We don’t yet have enough evidence to understand how people who experience the technology feel about it or respond to it. Like any intervention, technological surveillance needs to be principled, proportionate and understood. There are anecdotal stories that indicate, for example, that some find it easier to do the time with a tag rather than supervision with someone who ‘melts their head’.

There is potential for technology to add value in many situations. Tags and their associated GPS monitoring capacity can, for example, alert monitoring bodies when individuals transgress stipulated geographical boundaries, perhaps going too close to a victim’s home or a school. This is useful only, of course, if there are sufficient resources for the necessary enforcement response.

Similarly, there are devices being piloted in London to monitor alcohol consumption, especially in cases where the supervising licence prohibits consumption. In these and many other circumstances, technology has the potential to help the supervising bodies by providing ‘real time’ information and providing data to enable the review an individual’s progress on a journey of desistance from crime.

Turning to prisons, evidence from across Europe suggests there is a lacklustre engagement with the application of technologies to advance resettlement and support desistance within prison establishments. Those leaving prison need help to build positive networks and activities in prison can help to facilitate this. Engaging in education is a good example. Distance learning may necessitate a Skype conversation with a supervisor. Prisons, in line with the Council of Europe’s recommendation on Prison Rules (2006), should ensure that “during the serving of a sentence, life inside should resemble life outside as much as possible.” However this is not generally happening because these types of considerations for prisoners are still not top priorities in the planning of new or upgraded facilities and even when there are there are often security considerations which undermine their application.

The use of technology in community and prison settings must support desistance; to help individuals to access and make use of technologies to support better life choices, and hence reduce the likelihood of (re)offending.

Garbutt’s article takes us to a world where technology may be used to exacerbate punishments for those sentenced for notorious crimes and therefore enter the living hell denoted by the title of his article. While debates about the nature of prison and the level of punishment it is meant to deliver may continue, these debates are framed by the current provisions for those serving sentences here in Northern Ireland. We rely on the Belfast Agreement with its Human Rights pillars. The translation of those pillars was taken forward by the Criminal Justice Review 2000 which set out further interpretations. Since then, the Attorney General and the Judiciary have continued to develop those interpretations via specific case decisions. We will undoubtledy face a further crossroad with the UK withdrawal from the EU and the associated changes in our relationship with the European Court.

While none of this guarantees that the interpretations taken by the Judiciary and future legislators here will always be in tune with ours, it does provide a bulwark. That bulwark is likely be even more effective if we are to engage the parties to the criminal justice family with legislators, academics and those with the capacity to resource technological developments for the good of our society. So as ScopeNI calls us to, let’s see if we can develop the connections that will support best synergy towards building a safe society where we respect the law and each other (Programme for Government - Outcome 7).