It was sold as a way to help solve Winnipeg's stubbornly high auto theft rate, but whether it can be used to monitor other kinds of criminals isn't so cut and dried.
That's according to a long-awaited report into the province's use of electronic monitoring (EM) of high-risk car thieves. The report, obtained by the Free Press, was not publicized by the Selinger government although it was submitted in June.
In a study of the province's two-year EM pilot project, University of Manitoba criminology student Ashley Pearson found electronic monitoring only played a small role in the province's dramatic decline in car thefts over the past four years. What had a steeper impact was the mandatory installation of ignition immobilizers in older, theft-prone vehicles.
But despite that and some glitches in the system, like GPS malfunctions and false alerts, Pearson determined it can be a useful tool.
"Overall, it appeared that EM had an impact on offender accountability within this pilot," she said in the report. "This finding is in line with research conducted by the Correctional Service of Canada, which found that EM might have positive effects on offender accountability. The interviews in this current study suggest that youth and criminal justice personnel believed that EM may have had a positive effect on compliance levels."
Justice Minister Andrew Swan extended the EM pilot project for a third year in March 2011.
"The department is studying the contents of (Pearson's) review," a provincial spokesman said Tuesday. "We also anticipate the completion of an independent report commissioned in March by Manitoba Justice on electronic monitoring by the end of this fall. We will move forward with the expansion of the use of electronic monitoring after due consideration of these reports."
Opposition Progressive Conservatives have long championed the expansion of EM to include sex offenders and some gang members, but the NDP has said it may first expand EM to include serious domestic abusers and stalkers, who would be prohibited from attending specific locations where a victim lives or works.
Pearson, under the guidance of U of M criminologist Rick Linden, was assigned to look at Manitoba's foray into EM two years ago. As rolled out by the province, only the worst teenage car thieves would be ordered by a judge to wear an anklet when on community release and under a strict curfew.
She interviewed a number of thieves about their experiences with the anklet and whether it changed their lives for the better. To get those to talk who were not in custody, they were given a theatre pass to see a movie. For those in jail, she had to convince them she was not a police officer.
"Almost half the youth (44 per cent) reported that EM would make them less likely to commit auto theft," she said in the report. "Some of these youth said that stealing cars is too 'pissy' (juvenile) and they did not want to take part in it anymore. One youth said, 'The bracelet helped change my life -- it helped me slow down drastically.' "
Some in corrections also found the EM project was a valuable tool.
"This is an excellent program that guarantees that people are off the street more often when they have the bracelet on," one told Pearson in an interview. "The biggest issue is if they are let out of jail instead of being kept in custody. They would have otherwise been kept in custody but instead are let out and given a bracelet. The bracelet is not an alternative to custody; it needs to be in addition to custody."
But others in law enforcement were critical of EM and its bugs, like drift in location accuracy, and say its value was oversold to the public.
"The only difference is the EM youth might not get checked as much in person," a police officer told Pearson. "Because they are on a bracelet, we assume they are home. Just because they are home does not mean they are not drinking or doing something else."
Linden said Pearson's research should not be used to make generalizations about whether EM would work on other kinds of criminals, be it young offenders or adults.
"The auto theft youth were among the most active and highly motivated offenders in Manitoba," he said. "These are kids who would go out when it was -30 outside and steal four or five cars in an evening. The question is open about whether it would work better with lower-risk, less highly motivated offenders.
"EM might prove to be helpful under some circumstances, but can be costly and is not likely going to be a quick fix for Manitoba's crime issues."
What teen car thieves say about wearing an anklet
"Giving me the bracelet made me want to steal cars. It was them versus me; they were trying to put me back in the system with that bracelet. They controlled my life and where I could go. They did not allow me to have authority over my own life. EM sets you up for failure. Regular probation means being checked on a few times a week. I like that freedom more. No one is watching over you then, and I am a free soul."
"I only complied with some of my conditions. I partied a lot with my friends and family and stole cars a couple of times with the bracelet. I went joyriding in three cars, which is way less than normal in a two-week time span. But I did not breach my curfew."
"My life was worse after EM. I stopped stealing cars but I started doing other crimes instead. I realized there was more money in B&E's than breaking into and stealing cars. I did not want that bracelet, but it did help me stop stealing cars, but I have moved on to more severe crimes."
"When the bracelets came out there was probably 30 of us car thieves. Now with the bracelets, there is about five guys left in the community. A lot of guys walked away when the bracelets came out and did not look back. I know of three guys that passed away because of auto-theft-related accidents, one guy that turned his life around completely and some guys that get scared straight. Then there are stubborn a--holes like me who just want to cruise at any expense."
"Stealing cars is like taking drugs -- a crackhead would not stop taking drugs unless they wanted to and were ready to. It is the same idea for car thieves. The bracelet does not help or make them want to quit, unless they are ready to do so."
-- source: An Evaluation of Winnipeg's Electronic Monitoring Pilot Project For Youth Auto Theft Offenders