Detention at home effective deterrent

Offenders on community and home detention are confined to their homes for a given period, with very few exceptions - going to the dairy to get some milk or toilet paper is not one of them. In the second of a series profiling the various sentences handed down by the court system, reporter Damian George looks at the sentences, how they work and the controversy surrounding electronic monitoring bracelets.

A sentence of home detention is the last chance for offenders to avoid jail.

The sentence, which can be given to offenders who would have otherwise faced a jail term of two years or less, restricts offenders to a suitable home address 24 hours a day, barring emergencies and approved absences.

Department of Corrections Otago service manager for electronic monitoring Chris Matthews says the sentence is seen by the department as a last opportunity to stop offenders from falling into the prison system.

''The most important thing for me is that we've got the opportunity, a real opportunity, to work with people to prevent future crime and prevent future victims,'' he says.

''We can say to an offender `Here's your opportunity to remain in the community ... but if this doesn't work, you're going to prison', and that's quite a stark choice.''

Mr Matthews says statistics show home detention is a far more effective punishment than prison, with just 19% of people reconvicted within a year of their sentence start date, compared with 42% of those who are sent to prison.

Offenders on home detention are monitored electronically by an ankle bracelet, which works by radio frequency.

In addition, GPS trackers monitor an offender's movements if they are granted an absence for things such as work or rehabilitation programmes.

While absences are available, they are not granted easily and are treated cautiously by staff, Mr Matthews says.

When away, offenders are given one route to get to their destination, and must stick to it.

One of the main reasons for approving absences, Mr Matthews says, is to facilitate employment opportunities.

''What we know is that employment is one of the most important factors in preventing someone from committing further offences.''

Absences are often sought at Christmas time and Mr Matthews has no problem with granting offenders an hour with their family, provided strict conditions are adhered to.

''If that's going to be pro-social, then we may allow that to happen.''

Crucial to the success of the sentence, he says, is assessing the suitability of an offender's address.

Factors such as radio reception, the house's other occupants and child protection concerns are taken into account.

''If we get all that bit right, then we're a long way down the track to actually making it work.''

Community detentionOffenders on community detention are also electronically monitored but are confined to a nominated address for an overnight curfew.

That is usually daily from early evening until early morning, but there are exceptions.

''The curfew is attached to risk factor,'' Mr Matthews says.

''If someone's offending is linked with drinking after work, for example, it could just be Friday and Saturday nights.''

Curfew absences are not taken lightly - anyone who misses their curfew, even by a minute, will be followed up.

However, there is some common sense involved, Mr Matthews says.

''They could just be in an area of the house, like the garden shed, where the [radio] signal is not there.

''But they will still be warned and it is still treated as non-compliance.''

Offenders on community detention are normally low-risk offenders who have committed crimes such as low-level property damage, theft, benefit fraud and alcohol-related ''scuffles''.

The sentence can apply on its own or alongside other sentences such as community work or a rehabilitation programme.

The bracelets, and the ease with which they can be removed, have come under fire recently.

In September, Christchurch District Court judge Alistair Garland took aim at electronic monitoring after a convicted sex offender on extended supervision allegedly cut off his bracelet and absconded.

Police arrested him four and a-half hours later. However, it is not practical to make the bracelets unremovable, Mr Matthews says.

''You have to be able to cut them off - it's a health and safety issue.

''And someone who is determined to get the bracelet off will remove it.''

Offenders and the fitting of their bracelets are checked at least once every 10 days, he says.

There are 50 offenders in Otago on home detention and 74 on community detention.

Regional figures are not available but of 4000 people subject to electronic monitoring in New Zealand since October 16, 32 have absconded, Mr Matthews says.

''We can make mistakes and, unfortunately, our mistakes tend to make headlines.

''But that's the nature of the business that we're in and we just have to learn, and we're learning all the time.''

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