A new law allowing gardaí to show pictures of convicted sex offenders as a means of protecting the public will not be used widely nor lead to a database of images, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has said.
The legislation, expected to come into effect by October, would allow gardaí to show pictures of offenders in specific situations, such as to school principals, where they believe such an action is warranted.
Addressing the forthcoming addition to the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill, currently progressing through the Oireachtas, Ms McEntee played down any concerns it would lead to a circulation of pictures or that the power would be widely used.
“If [for example] somebody is seen around a school, if they are behaving in a way that they shouldn’t, to be able to show a picture to a teacher, or to a principal, to make them aware of this individual, that is the kind of situation that we are talking about. It’s very specific, it’s very focused,” she said.
The proposals will be tabled next week along with another to increase the time available to take fingerprints and photographs of offenders from three to seven days.
The Minister framed the move in the context of her zero-tolerance strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, published earlier this year.
Ms McEntee said the amendments were being brought to ensure the strongest laws possible to monitor sex offenders in the community but stressed their limited and cautious use.
“[Pictures] will obviously be provided by the gardaí. So the likelihood that there would be mistaken identity where this person has already been convicted and is on the register I think is very slim,” she said.
“What this will not be is a picture being put up on social media, a picture online being shared widely. This will be very specific, it will be very focused on where there might be particular concerns including [those relating to] children.”
The amendment on the provision of pictures was developed alongside Roscommon TD Denis Naughten. Earlier this year, Mr Naughten had suggested sex offenders be compelled to engage with treatment programmes while in custody, although this was rejected by Ms McEntee on the basis it would not have the desired effect.
Mr Naughten was concerned that fewer than one in eight jailed offenders engage with assessment and treatment programmes despite an expansion of such services since 2016.
Responding to the move on sharing pictures, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties cautioned that, as experienced in other jurisdictions, inappropriate access to sensitive personal information can present “grave dangers” to offenders and other members of the community.
It said the Probation Service and Garda already liaise with schools and other services if a specific risk is identified.
“Placing that co-operation on a statutory footing would be welcome. It will be essential that there are clear rules in places about the threshold of risk that must be met before such information is shared,” said executive director Liam Herrick.
“There is also a wider context of ongoing deficits in how gardaí use and control personal data and we need to ensure appropriate officers are adequately trained for such tasks.”