The Probation Service and Rape Crisis Network Ireland have backed draft laws regarding the disclosure of information, electronic tagging and restricting foreign travels of convicted sex offenders.
But the head of the Probation Service Vivian Geiran cautioned that there was “no silver bullet” in terms of legislative or technical measures that will stop sex offenders from carrying out more crimes.
He was addressing the Oireachtas Justice Committee, which is considering both the Government's General Scheme of the Sex Offenders Bill 2018 and a Private Member's Bill, the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2018.
Senior officers from the PSNI, who attended the hearing, said legal powers in the North preventing a convicted sex offender from travelling abroad were rarely-used but an “essential part” or their armoury.
But law lecturer Margaret Fitzgerald O’Reilly expressed concerns around proposed provisions regarding travel restrictions, tagging and disclosure and said any such powers should be based on evidence and be both “necessary and proportionate”.
Included in the Government's bill is a provision allowing for a mid-ranking garda to disclose information to the public or a member of the public in the interests of their protection. This information could include the name, address and level of risk posed by a sex offender.
The bill will also allow for the electronic tagging of an offender as part of a sex offender order.
Separately, the Private Member's Bill, tabled by Maureen O'Sullivan TD for Dublin Central, provides for a court to restrict convicted sex offenders from travelling abroad and engage in child sex tourism.
Ms O'Sullivan addressed the hearing and said the impetus for her bill came from meetings with Irish priest, Fr Shay Cullen, who is directly involved in rescuing children from the sex tourism industry in the Philippines.
She said the bill recognises the constitutional right to travel, but balances that against the need to protect the rights of children abroad.
Mr Geiran described both bills as providing “very significant” improvements in the legal area.
The Probation Service Director said the issue in the Government's bill of disclosure was the provision where “most caution” was needed.
He said it had “huge potential for harm as well as good” depending on how it was framed.
He said he was concerned that uncontrolled disclosure of information regarding a sex offender could drive offenders underground, making their job of supervision more difficult and increasing the risk of reoffending.
Probation Deputy Director Ita Burke said electronic tagging was most effective when part of a risk management strategy and that it had proved effective in other jurisdictions in such situations. She said the Probation Service “saw value” in what the legislation was proposing.
Mr Geiran said he recognised Dr Fitzgerald O’Reilly's concerns regarding the provision on restricting travel, but added that he agreed with the PSNI view that this power “would be quite useful”.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray said the provision was a “useful piece of legislation”, while PSNI Detective Superintendent Ryan Henderson said it was an “essential part of the armoury”, though it was rarely used.
Caroline Counihan of the RCNI said the provisions in both bills were very welcome and represent “significant increases” in legal powers.
She shared concerns regarding unregulated disclosure, saying the potential of driving offenders underground was a “huge concern” and said there needed to be penalties for misusing the information. She also said the travel provision would need to be “framed properly” to isolate any legal challenges.
Dr Fitzgerald O’Reilly said empirical research did not show disclosure was effective. She said it should only be done where it was “necessary and proportionate” and that there should be express confidentiality on the information provided.
She said research indicated electronic tagging was not effective in terms of preventing reoffending or deterrence – but said it may have a role in monitoring adherence to registration requirements. She said it was also very costly.
In relation to travel, she said there was no evidence to show it was effective. She said the wording left the provision “very exposed to be challenged” given its interference with constitutional rights to travel and liberty and would need to be reframed and tightened, perhaps as part of the Government's bill.