Tuesday, 11 March 2014
Sex Offenders Treatment Programme
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, for coming to the House to respond on this issue on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality.
The issue I wish to raise concerns the treatment of sexual offenders in our prisons and in our communities after release. This issue was brought to my attention again last week when we had the deplorable case of two little girls of six and nine years of age in Westmeath who had been raped. This case highlighted the issue concerning sexual offenders and how we deal with them. I have been in contact with victims' groups here who believe we do not focus our attention on the rehabilitation of offenders. At any given time, there are approximately 300 sexual offenders in our prisons and we release 100 of them each year into our communities.
I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Shatter, has made considerable progress in this area with the introduction of the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012, which deals with the mandatory reporting of child abuse, but we need to go further. We need to ensure that sexual offenders are properly managed within our communities. We should also provide mandatory programmes in our prisons as part of the wider approach to managing these offenders. All my comments are based on the need to protect our children. This is a child protection issue and children, rather than the offender, should be to the fore in all of our discussions on ensuring offenders do not re-offend.
An increasing body of research shows that simply imprisoning offenders is not effective in reducing the risk of re-offending on release. It has been shown that well designed evidence based rehabilitative approaches in our prisons can reduce re-offending rates among sexual offenders. This is the kernel of the issue. I do not believe we will cure sexual offenders, but mandatory programmes while they are in prison are essential, as are rehabilitative programmes on their release into communities.
The act of committing a sexual offence against a child is a heinous crime and the Legislature is morally obliged to protect children against it.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter. He apologises that he is unavoidably absent for this important issue.
In the management of sex offenders, the focus of the work is multifaceted and involves both the assessment of the risk of re-offending and the monitoring of compliance with relevant court supervision orders. While in prison, a convicted sex offender can avail of relevant treatment to address his or her offending behaviour. The treatment of sex offenders is centred in Arbour Hill Prison where the Building Better Lives programme is undertaken. The programme comprises group interventions in three modules and allows responsive and flexible delivery of rehabilitation services which take account of individual risk, needs and capacity. The Baseline project is a joint initiative between the northside inter-agency project and the Prison Service psychology service which provides group programmes for young offenders with a history of sexually harmful behaviour. It also continues work into the community for those with convictions for sexual offences. The group programmes are rolling programmes with new participants joining and others leaving groups in response to progress.
Not all sex offenders are suited to group programmes and other prison-based therapeutic interventions include one-to-one interventions. Sex offenders also engage with other services to address other related needs, such as mental health needs. The Probation Service engages with sex offenders in individual work throughout the course of their sentence. This work primarily focuses on reducing the risk posed by the individual following release and also on any child protection issues which may arise.
Mandatory participation in treatment programmes is a concept that is often mooted which is to some extent understandable. However, mandatory participation in any form of intervention or rehabilitation is not a realistic option. While offenders can be supported and encouraged in their efforts to address their offending behaviour, ultimately experience has shown that successful completion of an intervention programme depends on the willing participation and commitment of appropriately motivated individuals. The challenge, accordingly, is to use a range of channels to motivate and incentivise as many offenders as possible. This includes individual counselling which plays a vital role in the change process.
The Sex Offenders Act 2001 introduced a wide range of measures aimed at reducing the risk to the public from convicted sex offenders. Those measures include notification requirements, often referred to as the sex offenders register, sex offender prohibition orders and post-release supervision. Compliance with these requirements is mandatory and a failure to comply can result in further prosecution for a sex offender. Part 5 of the Act provides for the post-release supervision of a convicted sex offender by the Probation Service. The period of supervision is set by the court and is based on consideration of the offender's rehabilitative needs, as well as the need to protect the public from serious harm. The period of post-release supervision can be subject to additional conditions of counselling or treatment.
Section 99 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 provides that sex offenders can be sentenced to part-suspended sentences. Such sentences involve an offender serving a period in custody followed by a suspended portion in the community. The sentencing judge can impose conditions of Probation Service supervision and treatment to this order. In managing these cases, the Probation Service works closely with the Garda and other partner agencies to ensure the co-operation and compliance by the offender with supervision in the interests of community safety.
The Probation Service co-facilitates Safer Lives, a sex offender treatment programme, in three locations for moderate to high-risk offenders and this programme is based on the Building Better Lives programme, a strength-based therapeutic approach. The Probation Service and the Probation Board of Northern Ireland have an all-island approach to working with sex offenders. Both agencies use the same risk assessment tools and undertake joint training. They also have a protocol for the sharing of information on the management of sex offenders.
Much work has been done since 2009 when the detailed discussion document on the management of convicted sex offenders was published on the Department's website. This document, prepared by a high level group involving the Garda Síochána, the Prison Service and the Probation Service, examined the arrangements then in place for the management of sex offenders with a view to strengthening inter-agency co-operation and further enhancing public protection and safety. Its remit included a review of the procedures and legislation relating to the assessment, monitoring and supervision of convicted sex offenders.
I appreciate the opportunity to have outlined for the House, on behalf of the Minister, the structures that are in place. I hope this is helpful in assuring the Senator in that regard and we can all recognise the valuable work being done by the agencies involved to comprehensively manage sex offenders, as well as the issues that arise within our prisons and in our communities.
I would have believed that mandatory participation treatment programmes would have been linked to prison sentences. If an offender refuses to participate in a programme, then his or her sentence should be extended. Has there been any research into the outcomes for sex offenders who have participated in such programmes?
As I am not the line Minister, I will make sure that the Minister for Justice and Equality will respond directly to the Senator’s questions. The management of sex offenders is taken seriously and the Department undertook a wide-ranging review of the law in December 2013. On foot of this review, the Government recently approved the Minister’s proposals for the drafting of a new sexual offenders Bill. It is priority legislation and is being drafted. It will include measures to put risk assessment on a statutory footing, strengthen the current notification requirements, shorten the period for registration from seven to three days, make it easier to apply for a sex offender order and enhance the application of post-release supervision. It will be published in late March or early April. A joint Prison Service and Probation Service working group has been established to review sex offender risk and offence-related issues.