Can the State effectively treat sex offenders?


JUST OVER ONE year on from the release from prison of Larry Murphy, a startling fact emerged that failed to cause even a fraction of the hysteria stirred up when the rapist walked free from Arbour Hill Prison last August.

Figures obtained by The Irish Timesrevealed that only 15 per cent of the 1,100 people on the sex offenders’ register living in the community were being supervised, treated or monitored by the Probation Service.

The remaining 85 per cent, almost 950 sex offenders in all, were back living in communities across the country with no restrictions on their movements and in the absence of any engagement with the State.

Rape Crisis Network, an information and resource centre on rape and sexual violence, expressed its concern at the low levels of supervision.

Policy director Clíona Saidléar said it was only when offenders knew they were being monitored after being released that they might police their own behaviour.

“The State has a responsibility to, insofar as is possible, minimise the risk they pose. To neglect that responsibility is just unacceptable.”

The emergence of the worrying figures again turns the debate back to the question of what can and should be done with sex offenders on release from jail.

It is within the prison environment that the State has its most valuable opportunity to get offenders to engage with treatment programmes.

The mainstay of the treatment of sex offenders in prison is the “Building Better Lives” programme. Introduced two years ago, it begins with an assessment of an offender on committal to prison.

Offenders meet mental-health experts to discuss their pattern of behaviour, determine what triggers their offending and, crucially, to assess their willingness to participate in group treatment.

The programme is voluntary as it’s felt that only inmates who genuinely want to work on themselves to avoid reoffending will fully engage.

There are usually two groups of eight inmates meeting twice a week in Arbour Hill, where many of the estimated 300 sex offenders in prison are held.

The groups operate on a rolling model, meaning men join and leave all the time. This enables men who have been on a programme for some time and who have progressed to assist newcomers.

The group meetings involve offenders telling their life stories in an honest and open manner, including details of their offending. They discuss issues such as victim empathy, risk areas and reoffending triggers they may encounter on release.

The philosophy is to get the offenders thinking about their patterns of behaviour with a view to arming them to avoid high-risk situations when they leave prison.

Sex offenders will also engage on a one-to-one basis with a number of experts in prison to address issues such as alcohol or drug dependency, anger and stress.

“Very often these are things that can be linked to a pattern of offending,” said a source familiar with the prisons programme.

The Irish Prison Service said there is capacity within its treatment options to accommodate up to 60 inmates in some form of therapy every year in Arbour Hill and to a lesser extent at the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise and Wheatfield Prison in west Dublin.

“If an offender shows a willingness to engage, we will find a place for them and build a programme around their specific needs,” a spokesman said.

After release, the State has two key means at its disposal to continue engaging with and monitoring sex offenders on their release; the Probation Service and the Garda.

Electronic tagging has been mooted for many years but this still appears to be some way off. An offender could only be tagged post-release if a trial judge recommended. And a period of tagging may well replace a portion of a prison sentence rather than extending the time frame of a court’s punishment.

While the Garda has a role in enforcing the rules that govern the sex offenders’ register, theirs is a benign enough contribution.

The register was established in 2001. An offender convicted of a sexual offence is placed on the register indefinitely if jailed for two years or more. The periods of the register vary for those jailed for shorter terms.

Once on the register, an offender must inform gardaí where they are living and if they change their address. They must also inform gardaí of any travel plans.

While the Garda can place surveillance on high-risk and/or high-profile offenders such as Larry Murphy, this is labour intensive and expensive and can only be continued for a finite period.

There is also nothing to stop a released offender moving overseas. His only obligation under the sex offenders’ register is to inform the Garda he is leaving the country.

The Garda has no role in supervision or treatment. That responsibility rests solely with the Probation Service.

An offender is only obliged to engage with the Probation Service if a period under probation post-release is included in the sentence that a judge hands down when the offender is convicted. This appears to be happening very infrequently.

Post-release supervision orders imposed by a court usually cover a period for more than one year.

The offender usually engages on a one-to-one basis with a probation officer, whom they meet regularly in order that they feel they are being monitored.

The probation officer also has a responsibility to ensure an offender is complying with any specific conditions attached to the supervision order.

These can include staying away from locations such as schools, playgrounds or areas where their previous offending was concentrated.

A probation officer is also charged with ensuring an offender complies with other conditions of a post-release supervision order such as attending psychological counselling or other therapeutic treatments.

In the private sphere, there are a number of therapeutic options, albeit limited in number.

The One in Four group, which mainly supports the victims of sexual abuse, runs an offender programme based on psychotherapy.

It lasts for 18 months and aims to “challenge the offender to understand the harm caused” and to equip them to live a life free of reoffending.

The Lighthouse Project in Dublin and Cork runs treatment programmes for offenders obliged to attend as a post-release condition. For teenagers exhibiting problematic sexual behaviour that may later manifest in sexual offending, there are two units in Dublin, at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, and Temple Street Children’s University Hospital, and one in Galway.

The Granada Institute in Shankill, south Dublin, is the largest therapeutic facility in the country. It has treated an estimated 1,800 people since opening in 1994.

However, it has run up losses for many years and is set to close later this year, representing a major blow to private therapeutic options.

Its closure comes at a time when the range of sex-offender therapeutic options on offer has already been criticised for being inadequate.

Research published last year by the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers (NOTA) concluded: “Current service provision is neither equipped to deal adequately with the current scale of the problem nor its likely growth.”