Written by John Sutton
June 23, 2015
With the naming of Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year, domestic violence offences have been brought to the forefront of government agenda and media scrutiny. These type of offences have become increasingly visible in the public eye, moving away from the ‘silent’ crime it once was.
In recent weeks, there has been a call, led by Ms Batty, for the government and judiciary to consider using electronic tagging devices to monitor perpetrators of domestic violence.
At a cursory glance, it sounds like a good idea and it has been praised in the media. A piece of equipment designed to monitor high risk, repeat offenders of violent crime and prevent reoffending behaviour? That’s not hard to sell to the public.
But, when you look deeper into the issue problems develop. As this is only a proposed idea there are no hard details at this stage. Even so, I cannot see that electronic tagging is the best way to proceed with addressing domestic violence and breach of apprehended violence orders.
The most obvious concern is that these devices are significant invasions of civil liberty. Judicial officers who order penalties relating to electronic tagging must be certain that there are no other alternatives in order to prevent repeat violent behaviour. Even then, it is a slippery slope and could very easily be misapplied.
The civil liberties of the victim are also a consideration. Victims would be required to wear a paired electronic monitoring device and provide significant amounts of personal information to the offender, for example, their address and other places they frequent. Furthermore, these electronic monitoring devices are highly visible. Whilst it may seem a small price to pay for personal safety, public stigma and identification are a concern for some.
It may be prudent at this stage also to discuss the specific case of Luke Batty, Rosie’s son, whose death was the driving force behind her activism. Luke was 11 years old when he was killed by his father at a cricket ground, in front of a number of people, his mother included. Newspapers expressed shock at the time as there was an Intervention Order in place against his father, protecting his mother and him. As tragic as Luke’s death is, however, the fact of the matter is that the Intervention Order in place allowed contact between Luke and his father. Electronic monitoring would not have assisted Luke Batty.
Another issue is costs. Not only are the costs of setting up and maintain the equipment costly, but there are also significant personnel costs. For example, Legal Aid NSW have stated that a pre-sentence report or equivalent would be required for both the offender and the victim. This is to ensure that the victim is also suitable for the program as they would also be subject to a high level of monitoring.
Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria estimates that costs would limit the program to monitor 60 offenders at a time. This initially seems like an acceptable number, however, compare that to statistics we have on domestic violence offences. For example, in Victoria, Police responded to 65,393 domestic violence calls between 2013 and 2014. Of those, charges were laid in 30,000 cases.
Obviously any costs directed towards electronic monitoring will prevent money being directed elsewhere. For example, it will take money away from education and reform programs which are directed towards addressing long term criminality.
Naturally, the costs and consequences to individuals must be weighed up against the effectiveness of electronic monitoring to determine the worth of the program. A research paper produced by Legal Aid NSW in 2011 draws the conclusion that electronic monitoring schemes are largely ineffective if we judge by rates of recidivism. Pilot schemes in both the UK and in New Zealand have led to those programs being scrapped.
Legal Aid NSW proposes channelling funding through education programs and initiatives as these are shown to have long term effects on recidivism and reoffending.
In our rush to find a perfect solution, it is clear that we have ignored some of the practical realities of the situation. This is an issue that does need addressing, and perhaps we can revisit it once a detailed proposal is put forward. However, at this stage, I cannot say that Australia would be well served by the introduction of such an initiative.