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An Evaluation of Electronically Monitored Restriction of Liberty Orders - Research Findings

DescriptionThis evaluation involved interviews with relevant practitioners and with offenders and their families, attendance at meetings, and the collection and analysis of data.
ISBN
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateJuly 25, 2000
Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 47An Evaluation of Electronically Monitored Restriction of Liberty Orders

David Lobley & David Smith Lancaster University

Restriction of Liberty Orders (RLOs) with electronic monitoring were introduced as a new community sentence by the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act of 1997. In August 1998 the new measure was made available on an experimental basis to the Sheriff Courts in Aberdeen, Hamilton, and Peterhead. The evaluation was conducted from the start of the pilot period until early in 2000, and involved interviews with relevant practitioners and with offenders and their families, attendance at meetings, and the collection and analysis of data provided by relevant agencies, mainly Social Work Departments and the contractors who provided the monitoring equipment.

Main Findings

  • A total of 152 RLOs were made during the first 14 months of the pilot, covering 142 individuals. Fifty-three orders were made in the Aberdeen Court, 94 in Hamilton, and 5 in Peterhead. The use of the orders, averaging 11-12 per month, did not increase over the pilot period.
  • RLOs accounted for about 2% of all disposals in Aberdeen Sheriff Court during the period of the evaluation, 3% in Hamilton, and 1% in Peterhead.
  • The majority (54%) of offenders made subject to RLOs were aged 16-20, and a further 26% were aged 21-25. Only 9 female offenders were made subject to an RLO.
  • More than two-thirds of the orders incorporated the maximum daily period of restriction, 12 hours. About one-third of the orders were for 3 months, and about one quarter were for 6 months; 75% of orders were of between 3 and 6 months.
  • The majority (95 or 63%) of offenders made subject to RLOs had previously served a custodial sentence, and a further 17 (11%) had been remanded in custody. Only 9 (6%) had no previous convictions.
  • Analysis of the outcomes of cases where RLOs were considered but not made suggested that the order replaced a custodial sentence in about 40% of cases.
  • Both Sheriffs and social work staff varied in their enthusiasm for RLOs. There was no consensus on the types of offender for whom they were most suitable. All agreed, however, that the monitoring equipment performed satisfactorily.
  • The majority of offenders made subject to RLOs, and members of their families, thought that they would agree to another RLO and saw the order as having displaced a custodial sentence.
  • Of the 152 orders imposed from September 1998 to October 1999, 103 had been completed and 9 were still in force at the end of February 2000. In 40 cases, orders had failed as a result of the offender's failure to co-operate.
  • Only 11 of the 103 completed orders reached their end with no unauthorised absences. Action for breach was begun in 46 (45%) of these orders, and formal warnings were issued in another 19 (18%) cases.
  • Longer orders were less likely to be completed successfully, and younger offenders, and those with more serious criminal records, were more likely to fail to complete their orders.
  • The unit costs of 3- and 6-month RLOs would be £2,500 and £4,860 respectively, if monitoring centres were working at full capacity.

Background

Electronically monitored RLOs were introduced by the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997, and require the offender to be in a specified place or, if more appropriate, not to be in a specified place, for a stipulated period of time. The orders were piloted in 3 Sheriff Courts: the busy courts of Aberdeen and Hamilton and the quieter one of Peterhead. The pilot schemes began in August 1998, and were originally intended to run until November 1999; in October 1999, however, an extension of 12 months was announced. The evaluation of the pilots covers all orders made up to the end of October 1999, and orders completed or breached by the end of February 2000.

Implementation

A national advisory group was established to plan and oversee the introduction of the new orders, and local inter-agency liaison groups were also set up to promote good communication and to deal with any problems of implementation. The Social Work Services Group of The Scottish Office produced a handbook in June 1998 (revised in November of that year) to guide practitioners on the use of the orders. Following a competitive tendering process, contracts for the provision of the electronic monitoring equipment were awarded to Geografix Ltd. (later Premier Monitoring Services Ltd.) for Aberdeen and Peterhead, and to General Security Services Corporation for Hamilton. The contractors provided local training for relevant practitioners, which was generally found helpful, and the local groups were effective in resolving questions of procedure and inter-agency communication.

Assessment for RLOs

In the period to October 1999, about 422 assessments of the feasibility and suitability of an RLO were carried out, invariably in conjunction with a social enquiry report: 170 assessments were made in Aberdeen, 32 in Peterhead, and about 220 in Hamilton. Assessments in Hamilton were more likely to result in the making of an order than those in Aberdeen or Peterhead. Sheriffs and social work staff agreed that an RLO should generally be seen as a high tariff community sentence, but there was no consensus about the types of offender for whom the order was most suitable. Factors indicating unsuitability included family tensions, unsettled accommodation, and chaotic and erratic ways of life, often associated with drug use. All orders imposed involved restricting an offender to a place. Although 3 assessments for restriction from a place were initiated, in each case the offender failed to co-operate with the assessment process or withheld consent.

The use of the orders

Overall, 152 orders were made on 142 individuals, 53 in Aberdeen, 5 in Peterhead, and 94 in Hamilton. These figures represent respectively 2%, 1% and 3% of all disposals in the period. On average 11-12 orders were made per month, with no discernible trend in the number made over the pilot period. More than two-thirds of orders incorporated the maximum daily period of restriction, 12 hours, but orders made in Aberdeen were more likely to link the times of restriction to patterns of offending - for example, day-time restriction in cases of shop theft and domestic burglary. The most frequently used lengths of orders were 3 months (32%) and 6 months (26%). Longer orders were more common in Hamilton, and shorter ones in Aberdeen. The legislation permits a probation order to be imposed concurrently with an RLO, and the courts used this power in half (76) of the occasions on which an order was imposed. Although the legislation also allows for a reduction in the period of restriction after a proportion of the order has been completed, only one order incorporated this form of incentive.

More than half (54%) of offenders made subject to RLOs were aged 16-20. A further 26% were aged 21-25, and only 9 female offenders, 7 of them under the age of 26, were made subject to an RLO. More than half of all orders were made in relation to theft or dishonesty offences. Most offenders (95 or 63%) made subject to the orders had previously served a custodial sentence, and another 17 had been remanded in custody. Only 9 (6%) had no previous convictions. Analysis of the outcomes of cases where an RLO was considered but not made suggests that the RLO replaced a custodial sentence in about 40% of cases.

The views of practitioners

Sheriffs varied in their enthusiasm for the new orders, but agreed that they would consider them in cases where either custody or another community sentence was a possibility. They also identified the 'persistent offender' who might be a constant nuisance to the community as a potential candidate for the order. Social work staff tended to think that the orders were useful only in so far as they genuinely displaced custody. Both groups, however, tended to become more rather than less positive about the orders over time.

There was no consensus on which types of offence or offender might be particularly suitable for an RLO, nor on whether the purposes of RLOs were purely punitive or could contain some positive goals for change. There was agreement, however, that the monitoring equipment itself performed satisfactorily. The contractors' staff were positive about the potential of the orders, and regretted that more were not made.

The views of offenders and their families

Offenders subject to RLOs, and their parents or partners, tended to be positive about their experience of the orders, mainly because they believed that the alternative would have been a custodial sentence. All but one offender found the contractors' staff helpful, though some offenders and some relatives felt that they had not appreciated all the implications before consenting to the order. Some offenders thought the length of their orders excessive, and a minority of parents thought that they were expected to carry an unreasonable burden of responsibility. Family tensions were increased by the orders in some cases, though not in all, and it was clear that restriction of liberty did not in all cases entail a cessation of criminal activity.

The results of RLOs

By the end of February 2000, of the 152 orders imposed from September 1998 to October 1999, 103 had been completed with varying degrees of success, and 9 were still in force, 7 of which were being actively monitored. In the remaining 40 cases the order had failed as a result of the offender's failure to co-operate. The overall completion rate was therefore 72% (not counting orders still in force), but this figure conceals a number of complexities: about one-third of these orders were substantially disrupted by periods in custody or domestic tensions. In 46 of the completed orders action for breach had been started, and another 19 involved formal warnings. Only 11 offenders completed their orders with no unauthorised absences. Of the 40 offenders whose orders 'failed', 23 received a custodial sentence as a result of breach action, and 9 received non-custodial sentences, including 3 new RLOs. Longer orders were less likely to be completed successfully, and younger offenders, and those with more serious criminal records, were more likely to fail to complete their orders. Orders that ran concurrently with another community sentence were no more likely to be completed successfully than 'stand alone' orders.

Costs

Assuming a somewhat higher level of use of RLOs than was found in the pilots, the unit costs of orders for 3 and 6 months can be estimated as £2,500 and £4,860 respectively. Further assuming an equal number of 3- and 6-month orders, the annual operating cost of RLOs, if they were to be made available nationally, would be £3,680,000, or the equivalent of about 274 prison terms of 6 months. This would produce an annual saving in a reduced use of imprisonment of about £300,000 if RLOs displaced an equal number of 3- and 6-month prison terms, and a saving of about £1.7 million if all displaced prison terms would have been of 6 months.

Conclusions

On the credit side from the evaluation of the piloting of RLOs, the monitoring equipment worked well, the contractors' staff were helpful and efficient, the orders were mainly used as a high tariff sentence, and all parties - Sheriffs, social work staff and offenders and their families - regarded the new measure as at least potentially useful. Less positively, the number of orders made meant that the contractors' staff never worked to full capacity. There was no consensus about the type of offender for whom the order was most appropriate, although there was general agreement on indicators of unsuitability, such as chaotic drug use and unstable accommodation. It was rare for orders to be completed without some violation of their requirements.

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