Penal reformers welcomed the move but said it is still a delayed response given previous commitments.
In Budget 2018, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said additional funding is being provided.
A spokesman for the Irish Prison Service (IPS) told the Irish Examiner that the IPS and the Probation Service are “currently advancing the tender documentation”.
He said the facility, catering for the Dublin region, is intended to assist women as they move from custody, or other residential settings, to the community: “It is envisaged that the facility would accommodate women for a period of time following custody, or on probation supervision in the community, who are assessed as suitable to reside in the community and have accommodation and other needs requiring support.”
He said suitable premises will need to be identified by the service provider, with accommodation and recreation and therapeutic facilities: “It is envisaged that the service provider will coordinate individualised care plans for this vulnerable group with complex needs, linking women to a variety of community-based services and equipping them with skills to move towards independent living.”
There are currently 133 spaces for women offenders within the prison system.
Dóchas can accommodate 105 women and, according to the IPS, some 20 of these are for women preparing for release.
Limerick Female Prison has the capacity for 28 women.
According to figures for October 17, there were 128 women in custody and a further 17 women on temporary release.
“The budget provision for a step-down facility for women in 2018 is welcome, but in fact represents a delay on previous commitments,” said Fíona Ní Chinnéide, acting executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.
She said the new timeline of early 2018 must now be met: “Female offenders are 4.6 times more likely than males to experience difficulty accessing accommodation, so it is essential that safe, secure and supported accommodation is provided for women on release.”
She said the new facility should not distract from the need for an open prison for women serving long sentences.
“Open prisons play an important role in normalisation and preparation for release from prison, but currently in Ireland only medium-security prison facilities are available for women. There are two open prisons for men.”
She said there is a “stark difference” in outcomes for men and women on the Community Return Programme, a structured and supervised prison release programme, with only 10% of men returning to prison, compared to 60% of women: “An estimated 85% of women in prison have addictions, with a much higher prevalence of mental health issues and histories of abuse outside prison.”