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Prisons to test monitoring devices

High-risk offenders in Ontario and Quebec are among the inmates slated to take part in a federal prison service pilot project to test the effectiveness of electronic monitoring devices.

Research data will be collected for at least two years before a decision is taken on further use of the devices, to be worn by offenders completing sentences in the community.

The Canadian Press obtained internal memos about the planned pilot project — which is months behind schedule — under the Access to Information Act.

The government announced plans for the pilot early last year despite opposition from the NDP, which questioned the cost.

In a September 2012 report, a majority of the Commons public safety committee recommended that the Correctional Service look into broader use of monitoring, which usually involves an ankle bracelet that can be electronically tracked from a central facility.

However, the NDP disagreed, saying the government's own witnesses made it clear that the devices are not effective for low-risk offenders.

Only medium- or high-risk male offenders out on statutory release — the final one-third of their sentence — or subject to a long-term supervision order will be eligible to take part in the pilot, says a September 2013 Correctional Service memo to regional deputy commissioners.

The Ontario and Quebec regions were selected because they have the largest number of high-risk offenders with special conditions imposed on their release, adds the memo.

Offenders who agree to participate in the research will be randomly assigned to one of two groups: those fitted with a device, or those without one.

The prison service tested monitoring devices from 2008-11, but did not gauge their "effectiveness and efficiency," the memo says.

Legislation passed by the Conservatives gives the prison service authority to demand that an offender who leaves prison on temporary absence, work release, parole, statutory release or long-term supervision wear a monitoring device.

The bracelets can be programmed to send an alert if the offender violates a release condition prohibiting them from being in certain places. Officials see the tool as a means of overcoming the challenges of monitoring offenders who have been ordered to abide by a curfew, or to avoid schools, parks, bars or known gang areas.

Correctional Service notes on the current project, prepared last November, say it will examine the cost-effectiveness of electronic monitoring, changes in offender behaviour, staff experiences with the devices, and any additional "intended and unintended" consequences.

Prison service spokeswoman Veronique Rioux refused to make anyone available to discuss the pilot.

It was supposed to begin last spring, but no bids from potential equipment vendors met the government's requirements.

The prison remains committed to the project, Rioux said, though she did not indicate when it might begin.

A number of provincial correctional systems use electronic monitoring to keep track of suspects out on bail or offenders permitted to be in the community under court-ordered conditions.

Still, the November notes say, a key challenge is managing expectations of partners involved in electronic monitoring, or EM.

"Many of them have very limited experience with EM, and their knowledge is often based on what they've seen on TV, in Hollywood movies and from seeing some American celebrities who have worn an EM device," a prison service official wrote.

"It is important for them to understand that EM is not a silver bullet and as with all technology some limitations do exist."

 

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