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Feds eye expanded use of electronic ankle bracelets for prisoners, immigrants

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OTTAWA - Canada's prison service plans a new pilot project to test the effectiveness of electronic ankle bracelets on offenders released into the community with conditions.

In addition, the federal border agency will consult the United States and Britain as part of a study looking at expanded use of the tracking devices on immigrants and refugee claimants.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews outlined the initiatives — despite steadfast opposition from the NDP — in a written response to a Commons committee that examined electronic bracelets last year.

"The advantages rest with potential cost savings, as well as enhanced monitoring and supervision in the corrections and immigration enforcement contexts," Toews said in the letter tabled in Parliament.

"The challenges are primarily with respect to effective implementation and evaluation."

In its September report, a majority of the Commons public safety committee recommended the federal prison and border agencies look into broader use of electronic monitoring.

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

"Electronic monitoring is not cheap, it's expensive," committee member and NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said Thursday. "You're spending a lot of money on people who are unlikely to reoffend."

In his letter, Toews said a steering committee of representatives from the Correctional Service, Public Safety and the Defence Department's Centre for Security Science would oversee and evaluate the prison service's pilot project slated for this year.

"Electronic monitoring will not be used as an alternative to detention but to enhance compliance with conditions upon release," Toews said.

He added that research has shown electronic tracking bracelets work best when accompanied by correctional programming for offenders.

"The overarching goal of implementing an electronic monitoring program should be to maximize public safety," said the letter. "Supervision tools are used to promote public safety by facilitating the safe reintegration of eligible offenders into the community."

The new study will benefit from passage of the Conservatives' omnibus crime bill, which 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, Toews said.

Garrison said while it may be worth attaching bracelets to the small number of high-risk offenders, most prisoners in the categories Toews mentions "have already been evaluated as low risk to be out in public, or they wouldn't be on those programs."

Under immigration law, the Canada Border Services Agency detained 9,929 people for an average of 19 days in 2011-12, the government says.

Toews noted the Immigration and Refugee Board has ordered electronic monitoring as a condition of release in a few cases, and a handful of Muslim men facing deportation under national security certificates currently wear ankle bracelets.

The border services agency will study the experiences of the United States and Britain, the only two countries that have implemented broader electronic monitoring immigration programs, the letter said.

The border agency will also review existing research regarding the "feasibility and risks" of using electronic monitoring with various detainee groups, including pregnant women.

If the agency finds that electronic bracelets in the immigration context could "benefit public safety and program integrity," it will consider a pilot project to explore the expanded use of electronic monitoring, Toews added.

"The results of such an initiative would help inform any potential program."

The New Democrats oppose placing bracelets on immigrants or refugees who have not broken the law, Garrison said. "We don't see any evidence that there's a need for this in the immigration context."

In the letter, Toews accused the NDP of failing to "take the abuse of Canada's immigration laws seriously."

Neither the prison service nor the border agency could provide additional details Thursday about their planned studies.

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