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Andrew Lynch: Tagging would help us tackle rapists like Murphy. So what's Ahern doing? Nothing

The public's fears over Larry Murphy could be instantly put to rest with just one tiny piece of metal. It would settle any arguments over his location and instantly rule him in or out as a suspect in any further sex crimes. It's called an electronic tag -- and Dermot Ahern's failure to introduce it is one of his most grievous failures as Minister for Justice.

Tagging is now inter-nationally recognised as a powerful weapon for any modern police force. It began in Britain over a century ago when some released convicts were stamped with indelible ink to warn the public about their criminal history. Today's version uses a tracking device with a global positioning satellite, attached to the ankle or wrist, to warn the authorities when a known offender is behaving suspiciously or revisiting their old haunts.

So why has the Govern-ment dithered for so long? In January 2009, Ahern published a strategy document on sex offenders which said that tagging would be a valuable resource for prisoners who did not co-operate with treatment options, just like Larry Murphy. As recently as four months ago, the minister reaffirmed his intention to introduce legislation.

Now Ahern has apparently bottled out -- and typically, he has not even bothered to provide a decent excuse. In a letter to Billy Timmins, the Fine Gael TD who represents Murphy's constituencies, he simply says that there are "legal difficulties" with tagging criminals who have served their full sentences -- apparently failing to understand that as minister, solving those difficulties is part of his job. He has also confirmed that while the Irish Prison Service will soon begin a pilot tagging project for prisoners on temporary release, sex offenders will definitely not be included.

Bullet

All of this has repercussions which go far beyond Larry Murphy. Our prison service is in crisis, with inadequate sentencing, bail laws and overcrowding all adding to the problem. The reason for this is simple -- we are locking up the wrong people while far more dangerous criminals are free to roam the streets. Last year, 60 people were sent to jail for not paying their television licences while 27,000 offences were committed by people out on bail. Since 2008, no fewer than 15 murder cases have involved chief suspects who were already serving time for another offence.

Tagging may not be a silver bullet for all these problems, but it would go a long way towards solving some of them. Of course the Gardai will put Larry Murphy under surveillance and track his activities as best they can. But it is simply impossible to expect 24-hour police supervision of every sex criminal in this country for the rest of their lives.

Tagging is not popular with the civil liberties lobby, who regard it as degrading and an infringement of criminals' human rights. Compared to the human rights of women who are understandably terrified of Murphy and his fellow predators, however, prisoners' feelings must surely come a long way down our list of priorities.

As with so many other crime-related controversies, Dermot Ahern's response can be roughly translated as: "There's nothing I can do, I'm only the Minister for Justice." That's precisely why we need a new one.


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