Just one in eight sex offenders being released from prison have taken part in the State's main treatment programme, according to new figures. 

There were 443 sexual offenders released from Irish prisons between 2017 and the beginning of last year, according to the figures obtained by RTÉ's Morning Ireland. 

Just 55 of these sexual offenders had taken part in the Building Better Lives programme (BBL). 

BBL is the State's main programme for reducing the risk of sex offenders committing another crime after their release. 

The Irish Prison Service's psychology unit has said that those who undergo BBL are more than 3.5 times less likely to reoffend compared to those who do not. 

The figures show that consistently fewer sex offenders are now taking part in the programme before their release when compared to six years ago.

In 2014, the then justice minister Frances Fitzgerald told the Dáil that 21% of sex offenders had taken part in the BBL programme before being released from prison. 

It has now fallen to around 12.4% per year. 

145 sex offenders were released from prison in 2020, but the Prison Service said it was unable to say how many of these had completed BBL due to demand on resources being focused on the pandemic. 

However, treatments have been curtailed due to restrictions associated with the virus. 

BBL is a voluntary therapy programme designed to help offenders understand the aspects of their lifestyle and thinking patterns that contribute to their offending and how to prevent that.

The programme can only be taken by prisoners who have fully admitted their offence and the harm they have done to their victim, have stable mental health and a sentence of more than 18 months. 

Reduced number participating 'a concern'

The Prison Service said BBL is not a panacea and a "significant number" of sexual offenders who do not fall into criteria for it are managed with other interventions like education, work training and sessions focused on mental health and emotional regulation. 

However, the reduced numbers taking the programme are a concern, according to the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

"It is a concern if people aren't able to access the treatment programmes that are demonstrated to reduce reoffending on release," IPRT Executive Director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said. 

She said there are a number of reasons why the figures may be low. 

"It could be a lack of motivation, or a place of denial, or if the sentence is being appealed, or if there's insufficient time on the sentence," she said. 

"On the other hand, it could also be a lack of access or psychology [services]," she added. 

She said another reason is that there is no incentive as sex offenders cannot access early release programmes, open prisons or community return programmes. 

"Sex offenders are treated differently in prison. Under the various human rights treaties that Ireland has signed up to, prison conditions cannot be used as additional punishment so we would like to see these things addressed," she added.

Ms Ní Chinnéide said it is important to invest resources into what is shown to reduce reoffending - including post-release supports and in-prison psychology services.

For people released from prison for certain sex offences, they are put on a record which is commonly referred to as the sex offenders register. 

This means they have to notify gardaí of any intention to change their name or address or any plan to leave Ireland.

An offender may also be ordered to undergo post-release supervision whereby they typically engage with the Irish Probation Service for a period of one to two years. 

Multi-agency model

The director of the Irish Probation Service said one method of managing sex offenders is a multi-agency national model known as SORAM. 

"Ourselves, working primarily with An Garda Síochána but also the Irish Prison Service, can monitor and support sex offenders wherever they are living in our community," Mark Wilson said. 

"Interventions are put in place which can include group programmes but more often than not is actually about individual work designed to motivate them to lead lives which are free from further offending," he added. 

Sex offenders are the least likely group of former prisoners to be convicted of an offence for a second time after their release, according to statistics from the CSO which looked at recidivism of prisoners released in 2014.

19% of such offenders committed a crime within three years of their release and the prison service said the majority of those additional convictions are not sexual crimes. 

Another important aspect of post-release management of sex offenders is engagement with therapy. 

Some of that therapy is provided by charities working in the sector, but those who continue to deny the harm that they have done remain outside those therapies. 

 One in Four is a childhood sexual trauma charity, and it provides a therapeutic intervention programme for people who have engaged in sexually harmful behaviour towards children. 

This occasionally includes convicted offenders.

One in Four Chief Executive Officer Maeve Lewis said that offenders are often not welcome in their homes or communities following release from prison.

"That is a very dangerous time for offenders because if they are driven underground that's the time when they are most likely to reoffend," she said. 

"They really need support. Obviously, that's resource driven but it is investment in making sure other children aren't sexually harmed," she added.

There were 418 people in custody serving a sentence for a sex offence at the end of January. 

The Prison Service added that it was developing a system to collect and publish an annual summary of data on all assessments, interventions, and management processes of sexual offences that should be available from 2022. 

It has previously been reported that the Prison Service is seeking funding to introduce a programme for people who deny their crimes.