Facing the reality when it comes to sex offenders


OPINION:Non-life jail terms must end at some point, so treatment programmes should be the norm, writes IAN O'DONNELL

THERE ARE about 300 sex offenders in Irish prisons, with all but 10 of them serving fixed terms of imprisonment. This means that, unless they have time added for breaking prison rules, they must be released after completing three-quarters of their sentence.

The remainder are lifers, which means that their release dates are at the discretion of the Minister for Justice. In theory, the members of this small group could remain incarcerated until they die.

Without exception these individuals have committed serious offences, many of which involved extreme violence, degradation and callous disregard for their victims’ wellbeing.

Some were repeat offenders; others struck just once. Some planned carefully and took care to cover their tracks; others acted on impulse. Some carried weapons and intended lethal violence; others relied on threats alone to subdue their victim. Some were related to the person they abused; others were complete strangers. Some were elated afterwards; others were stricken by remorse. Some are suspected of involvement in crimes for which they were never brought to justice; others are not.

What they have in common – in addition to the harm they caused – is the fact that they will be released, usually untreated and poorly prepared, to an unsuspecting public.

If the media directed its spotlight on each of these men as their release dates approached, the coverage would be virtually non-stop and public fears would become increasingly difficult to allay.

Imagine the frenzy that has accompanied the release of Larry Murphy multiplied by 300 as the current cohort of imprisoned sex offenders is released over the coming years.

There is an assumption in much of the current debate that sex offenders are incorrigible predators and that it is a question of when, not if, they will strike again. Their criminal activity is seen to be wrapped up in their personality in a way that sets them apart from the “ordinary decent criminals” whose stealing and fighting we find easier to comprehend.

If it is part of who they are, so the argument goes, it is only a matter of time before this tendency reasserts itself and another life is destroyed. From this perspective, there is no such thing as an ex-sex offender.

But this bleak outlook does not fit well with the available evidence. A follow-up study of 20,000 prisoner releases carried out by the UCD Institute of Criminology found that sex offenders were significantly less likely to be re-imprisoned than other types of offender.

About 18 per cent of those who had served time for a sex offence were back behind bars, on a variety of charges, within three years. This compared with more than 45 per cent of persons who had completed a sentence for a violent or property offence. These results are similar to those reported in other countries.

Of course such findings require careful interpretation. It might be that a longer follow-up period would reveal a higher level of reoffending among sex offenders or that they are better at avoiding capture than other criminals. Neither should we underestimate the extent to which victim reporting and effective prosecution are particularly problematic for this type of crime.

Nevertheless, the available evidence suggests that the threat to public safety posed by released sex offenders is often exaggerated.

The furore around Murphy’s release forces us to think about what, as a society, we wish to achieve by punishing law-breakers. Is it rehabilitation or deterrence or incapacitation? Or is it retribution, plain and simple, striking back at wrongdoers and inflicting pain on them in proportion to the pain they have caused to others?

There is a retributive edge to aspects of the recent commentary and it would seem that there is an appetite, in some quarters at least, for harsher and harsher sentences.

In this regard it should be borne in mind that a prison sentence of 15 years, such as that imposed on Murphy, is extremely onerous, even if a portion of it is remitted.

We have become used to double-digit prison terms in recent times and it is possible that if penalties for more serious offences are further inflated there will be a knock-on effect for less serious crimes. This will have predictable consequences for the growth of the prison population and all of the associated costs.

The notion that a convicted sex offender could spend a decade in prison without availing of any treatment gives cause for concern. There is evidence that participation on sex offender treatment programmes can reduce the likelihood of recidivism. These programmes make significant emotional demands on the men who avail of them; they are far from an easy option.

The onus must be on the Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service to design regimes where therapy becomes the norm rather than the exception. This could be linked with the possibility of a period of early release under supervision, allowing an individual’s reintroduction to society to take place on a phased basis before their liberty is fully restored.

It goes without saying that any such scheme would have to be based on a thorough risk assessment and have a clear focus on public protection.

Regrettably, we must accept that if prisoners are to be released there is always a risk that they will reoffend. Some minor offenders go on to commit murder and some murderers never come into conflict with the law again.

Predicting behaviour is a fraught business. Risk prediction tools have a margin of error and human judgment is imperfect so there will always be decisions that have disastrous consequences.

The harsh reality of criminal justice is that while we can guard against this eventuality we can never eliminate it.

Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin

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