Source: The Scotsman (UK)
Pubdate: Wed, 2 Sep 1998
Author: Frank Urquhart


Civil rights activists reserve judgment

THE first convicted criminal to be electronically tagged in Scotland last
night praised the scheme as his only alternative to a prison sentence.

But Ernest Milne's enthusiasm was not shared by civil rights activists who
reserved judgment until the scheme had stood the test of time.

Professor Alan Miller, the director of the Scottish Human Rights Centre,
has been critical of the scheme in the past because it may divert funds
from proven alternatives to custody like community service.

Yesterday, Milne, the son of a college lecturer who stole to support his
drug habit, acknowledged the only alternative to the tagging scheme would
be prison. Milne, a former heroin addict with 18 other convictions, had
previously served a year in prison for possession of the drug.

Under the terms of the order, Milne, 20, will observe a curfew between 10am
and 4pm, which was the period during which he offended in order to raise
money to satisfy his UKP500-a-day heroin habit.

Milne, who admitted four theft charges, will be fitted with an electronic
tag which will allow his movements to be monitored closely, alerting
operators should he leave home between the hours stipulated in the order.
Sheriff Graeme Buchanan also placed Milne on probation for a year.

Speaking at his home in Countesswells Road, Aberdeen, Milne said: "I'm
happy about the sentence. I've been under community service orders and
probation and breached that, so I was prepared to try tagging.

"The sheriff didn't ask for it, but I volunteered to try it through my
social worker. He suggested it and I said I was willing to accept it. The
tag won't be a problem. I'd rather that than jail."

Milne, who began taking drugs when the family moved to Aberdeen, is on a
methadone programme and hopes to make a fresh start when it ends in seven
weeks. He acknowledges the support he has had from his family and the
authorities is essential to his recovery.

Milne said: "For our generation it's just like having a cup of tea. I hate
what heroin does to people. Drug addiction is a disease.

"I came out of prison on 10 October last year and got straight back into
heroin. I had a UKP500-a-day habit. I broke into houses purely to get money
to buy the drug.

"I don't need to feed my habit because I'm on medication. My life is
changing, thanks to my social worker and the support of my parents. If it
wasn't for them I'd be dead. I should be off methadone in another seven
weeks then my life can really begin again."

The decision of Aberdeen Sheriff Court to tag Milne also won the approval
of Milne's mother, Catherine. She said: "My son was in prison before and if
he had gone back into jail again his methadone would have been taken from
him because he is under 21.

"He would have been left with nothing and he would have had to go cold
turkey and that could have been the end of him."

Mrs Milne predicts it will not be easy coping with her son at home for six
hours each day. She said: "He will be at home and it is going to be
difficult but I am sure it will work. He has been out of trouble for a year."

However, Menzies Campbell, QC, the Scottish Liberal Democrat's spokesman on
law and order, said: "Liberal Democrats are not convinced of the case for
electronic tagging in general. But in specific instances like this it may
be appropriate."

Prof Miller also reserved final judgment on the experiment. "We will be
interested in monitoring the use of tagging throughout the period of the
trials and would prefer not to make any comment at a time when a tagging
order has just been imposed in one particular case," he said.

"We are, however, pleased that a probation order accompanies the tagging as
one of our concerns has been that people such as this person are very much
in need of contact with those who are able to provide support to them, as
opposed to being given a tag and left to themselves."

Aberdeen, Hamilton and Peterhead are the Scottish courts chosen for the
electronic tagging pilot project, which will run until March 2000.

A spokesman for Geografix, the Norwich-based company which is implementing
the scheme for the three courts, said: "It is a form of punishment with an
element of rehabilitation as there has to be a certain amount of discipline
to keep yourself within your house for the curfew times."

- ---
Checked-by: Mike Gogulski