Electronic tagging: get on with it!

The use of electronic tagging in cases of bail also helps balance society’s right to feel protected with the accused’s right to be released from custody

Jomic Calleja Maatouk was sentenced to five years in prison last July after a court found him guilty of trying to import C4 explosives. Jomic was described by the magistrate that handed down the sentence as a “lethal weapon”. 

His girlfriend, Marzia Miramar Maatouk, was also sentenced to 15 months’ jail last month in a separate case involving drug possession. 

Both appealed their respective judgments, which means the effective prison terms they were handed down cannot come into force until the appeals are decided. 

While enjoying their liberty, both individuals absconded from Malta in what appears to be a clear attempt to escape justice. The police are now in the process of issuing European Arrest Warrants for the couple. 

It is not the police’s fault that the pair left the island undetected – they are believed to have left clandestinely by boat. The criminal justice system affords people in Jomic’s predicament absolute freedom pending the final outcome of his case. 

Maybe the time has come for a review of the system to ensure people found guilty of serious criminal charges and who are waiting for final judgment on appeal remain under the watchful eye of law enforcement agencies. 

The only way to do this without having to incarcerate the individual is through electronic tagging. 

Unfortunately, despite being mentioned as an important tool in the criminal justice system as far back as 2012, electronic tagging remains elusive. 

The current administration introduced a Bill in 2021 to allow for electronic tagging to take place in a limited number of instances. The Bill never made it past the First Reading stage by the election and had to be reintroduced again last October. 

It still languishes at First Reading stage despite the Correctional Services Agency issuing a tender last year for electronic tagging equipment. 

The tender allows for electronic bracelets to indicate where a person is; it also makes provisions for the possibility of ordering house arrest, whereby the tag gives off a signal if the individual exits a predefined geolocation; and the tender also allows the possibility for the system to give a warning signal if the accused person violates the parameters of a restraining order and approaches their victim. 

The system being requested appears to be good but even if the equipment is purchased, as it currently stands, the Bill allows the court to order electronic tagging in limited scenarios. The court can order electronic tagging for persons sentenced to a prison term of not more than one year; in cases where a restraining order is imposed; and when a court issues a temporary protection order in domestic violence cases. 

Additionally, the electronic tags can be used on prisoners who are granted prison leave, and prisoners allowed out on parole. 

This means that the law currently before parliament would not allow somebody in Jomic’s position to be electronically tagged pending the outcome of his appeal. The Bill also makes no provisions for electronic tagging to be used as a control measure for persons who are granted bail. 

In May last year, Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera remarked in a judgment that plans to introduce electronic tagging in the criminal justice system should be expanded to include their use in cases concerning bail. 

She said the courts should be allowed to order an accused person to be electronically tagged as part of a bail decree. 

“If this sort of system existed in our country, the state would be in a better position to monitor people accused of crimes who have been granted bail,” she ruled. 

This leader believes the law must allow the law courts greater discretion to use electronic tagging as a tool to aid law enforcement officials in keeping track of persons accused of serious crimes and those awaiting final judgment. 

The use of electronic tagging in cases of bail also helps balance society’s right to feel protected with the accused’s right to be released from custody. 

Additionally, the introduction of electronic tagging for cases of bail will have the beneficial effect of reducing the number of people incarcerated while still waiting for their case to be decided. 

Jomic’s case is just but one instance where electronic tagging would have made sense. But there are many other cases, where electronic tagging can serve as an early warning system to prevent crimes from happening or people absconding. 

The government must move ahead with the parliamentary process and make electronic tagging a part of the criminal justice system. But government should also expand the use of electronic tagging to cases of bail, as Madam Justice Scerri Herrera suggested last year. 

Electronic tagging has been in use in foreign jurisdictions for many years and it’s not as if Malta is inventing the wheel. This issue has been put off for far too long despite its obvious benefits for society, for the accused and their victims.