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Sentencing Proposals: Sexual Offences

11th July 2017

IPRT is clear that prison should be reserved for the most serious offences and for those offenders who continue to present a serious risk to society. Sexual offences are among the most grave and harmful categories of crime, to which the full rigour of the law must be applied. However, IPRT has a number of concerns about proposals included in the Criminal Justice (Commission of Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2017 [PMB], which we believe would have unintended negative consequences.

IPRT's position is that mandatory sentencing regimes are proven to be ineffective in reducing crime, are extremely costly to the exchequer, and divert resources and attention away from where they are most needed:

  • restoration of funding to victims support services;
  • investment in child protection services;
  • investment in crime prevention, detection and prosecution;
  • investment in prison treatment, service and regimes; and
  • well-resourced post-release supervision and monitoring in the community.

While the Private Member's Bill was withdrawn due to procedural requirements, the Minister for Justice & Equality Charles Flanagan announced today that he will bring forward a Government Bill reflecting these proposals for approval by Cabinet in Autumn 2017. The proposals raise a number of important issues and considerations which deserve discussion.

Mandatory/Presumptive Sentencing

The presumed deterrent effects of mandatory sentencing are not supported by evidence. This is reflected in the findings of the Law Reform Commission Report on Mandatory Sentencing (2013) and the Strategic Review of Penal Policy (Rec. 34, Sept 2014). Both made clear recommendations that no new mandatory sentencing schemes should be introduced. The Strategic Review of Penal Policy in particular was a cross-agency report, which included a victims representative group alongside agencies tasked with crime prevention, and IPRT.

This is distinguished from the principle of judicial independence, which includes the discretion to impose sentences according to the gravity of the offence(s) and the individual circumstances of the case, up to the maximum.

More information on mandatory sentencing is available here.

Consistency in Sentencing

IPRT believes that concerns that may exist around consistency in sentencing can be better addressed through the introduction of Sentencing Guidelines or a Sentencing Council. Such proposals were included in a number of party manifestos in advance of the 2016 General Election.

Public confidence in the justice system must also be strengthened through regular and robust collation and publication of sentencing data. IPRT has previously recommended adequate resourcing of the Irish Sentencing Information Project: www.irishsentencing.ie

More information on the work of the Sentencing Council in England & Wales is available here.

Reoffending rates

IPRT advocates for an evidence-led criminal justice system, which is grounded in the collection and robust analysis of criminal justice data. While the reliability of crime statistics in Ireland is under review (see, for example: Central Statistics Office Review of the quality of crime statistics 2016), and there are many known barriers to the reporting of sexual crime, the headline figures of reoffending by sex offenders on release from prison in Ireland are often misrepresented in public debate.

For example, the CSO 3-year recividism rate of 14% for prisoners released in 2010 (who had been been imprisoned for a sexual offence) includes all categories of subsequent offence, including public order offences and controlled drug offences. The number reconvicted within 3 years for a subsequent sexual offence was 1 of 86 prisoners released (or 1.1%).

CSO data on 3-year reconviction rates for a subsequent sexual offence by prisoners released from prison 2007-2010 having served a custodial sentence for a sexual offence:

The lowest recorded rates of overall recidivism on release from prison are consistently among prisoners whose initial offence was Group 02 Sexual Offences. There are many reasons why this might be the case, including longer sentences, age on release, and provision of post-release supervision and supports. IPRT is clear that even one repeat sexual offence is extremely serious and its traumatic impact and consequences for the victim must not be minimised. Nevertheless, it is important that CSO recidivism statistics are reported accurately.

Treatment in Prisons

Reported low participation rates in treatment programmes such as the Building Better Lives programme must be addressed. Although low participation rates can indicate an unwillingness to engage, IPRT observes that there are many reasons why a prisoner may not engage with psychology services and treatment in prison, including:

  • waiting lists for services;
  • services unavailable in the particular prison;
  • staff shortages; and
  • an under-resourced prison psychology service.

It is of crucial importance that all prisoners who wish to engage in treatment and services, or other meaningful activities and regimes, are facilitated to do so consistently from the very beginning of their sentence. This demands adequate prison staffing levels to ensure prisoners are brought to activity areas; ring-fenced resourcing of Integrated Sentence Management officers; increased investment in prison psychology services; and the expansion of specific treatment programmes and services across the prison estate.

"Emphasis on a rehabilitative regime is not a liberal view that sets out to give prisoners a soft landing and undermine the rights of victims ... It is imperative that the prevention of re-offending is at the heart of a victim-centred approach and the development of a safer society, and moves to reduce reoffending must, therefore, be at the heart of prison reform." ~ NI Prisoner Ombudsman, 2012

Supervision in the Community

Ultimately, public safety is best served through investment in those factors and approaches that are demonstrated to prevent and crime and protect against reoffending. Factors that are known to reduce reoffending on release from prison are: provision of appropriate supervision and supports in the community; stable accommodation; smooth transition from prison to community mental and physical healthcare services; education, training and employment.

A progressive and effective penal policy that has public safety at its centre will ensure investment in rehabilitation supports both before and after release from prison - and will not resort to costly and ineffective mandatory sentencing responses, which result in unequal justice at enormous cost to the State.

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