The ultimate aim for a legislation in this area is to reduce the risk of new offences. This is the lens through which we have to look at every measure in this Bill. It is about how we make our communities safer. I must say that I am honestly not sure about electronic monitoring of sex offenders. I am absolutely in favour of keeping people safe and monitoring. The idea of electronic tagging for sex offenders has been floated for a long time. It was considered back in 2009 by the Department of Justice and again by Frances Fitzgerald when she was Minister. It is easy to see why it is a popular idea. The concept of tracking sex offenders electronically aims to provide a level of comfort or reassurance to victims and the community at large while also making it easier for the Garda to monitor offenders effectively. At present, some 1,708 people are subject to a reporting requirement under the 2001 Act. A total of 319 of these are supervised by the Probation Service and 192 are under post-release supervision in the community. The remainder notify their whereabouts to their local Garda station.
Electronic monitoring is already provided for under the Criminal Justice Act 2006, which states if an offender is facing a sentence of more than three months, a judge can restrict his or her movement instead of imposing a prison sentence and an electronic tag can be used to ensure the offender maintains a strict curfew and stays away from certain areas. When electronic tagging was trialed back in 2010, prisoners on temporary release had to keep the devices in their pockets as the straps kept breaking. There were also faulty transmissions of signals resulting in periods were prisoners were not monitored. Granted, that was a trial and the whole point of trials is to make sure something works. There have been improvements to GPS technology, which has come a long way in the past 11 years, but regardless, this goes to show that electronic monitoring may not be infallible. If such monitoring is going to be used more, there will have to be some degree of testing and monitoring of devices. There would also need to be significant monitoring of the individuals with these devices to ensure nothing is amiss.
No monitoring currently takes place, aside from instances where prisoners are given temporary release under limited circumstances. We need to take a closer look at why that is the case. To date, there has been a marked reluctance to use electronic tagging despite it being legislated for, but there is no sense in legislating for the broader use of a technology that is not being used. I may be wrong and it may not be permitted to use such technology in these circumstances. I look forward to hear what the Minister of State has to say in that regard.
The main reasons for the hesitancy in using electronic tagging seem to be its cost, the resources required and its effectiveness in reducing crime. Electronic monitoring requires a large support staff to monitor people's movements, as well as enough gardaí on hand to react if an offender breaches the terms of their directions. With 1,708 people currently subject to a reporting requirement, how many people could gardaí feasibly monitor? Has there been any kind of study into the capacity that is available? There was some suggestion a number of years ago that legal advice had been given to the effect that people could only be monitored for a maximum of 12 hours a day. There does not seem to be any mention of this in the Bill. Will the Minister of State elaborate on the legal advice the Department has received on the length and degree of monitoring permitted via these devices? Will that be clarified in this legislation?
Electronic monitoring cannot replace traditional measures of supervision and it will not make any impact on the rehabilitation of offenders. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has described evidence about the benefits of electronic tagging as "fairly unconvincing". It argues that what is really needed is investment in resources for the Probation Service and An Garda Síochána, but that needs to happen anyway. Ultimately, there seems to be a lack of empirical evidence that electronic monitoring works. While Garda knowledge of the whereabouts of a sex offender is often a comfort, particularly to the public, it is not all that effective in crime prevention.
I recall discussing the issue of anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, in this House many years ago. Several members of an Oireachtas committee went to the UK to an area in which ASBOs were being used extensively. The real takeaway from that visit was that the ASBO was fine in principle but the monitoring required and the resources needed for rehabilitation were significant and way more than we had anticipated. For some people, ASBOs were a badge of honour and something of which to be proud, which was deplorable.
We are all familiar with the fact that most sex offenders are known to their victims. The annual report from the sexual violence centre in Cork, for example, found that almost nine out of ten victims of rape or sexual assault knew the perpetrator, while 13.2% were raped or sexually assaulted by a stranger. Despite knowing this fact for many years, it does not seem to sink into the narrative around sex offenders. Realistically, this is probably because it is a hard fact for any of us to come to terms with that anyone close to us would be capable of such a horrific crime. There are sex offenders out there who present a significant risk to others and who need to be monitored consistently, not simply electronically, for the protection of the community and indeed, sometimes for their own protection. I came across a scenario where a sex offender was living very close to a playground and was known. One can see what could arise in that kind of situation. While the narrative is often focused primarily on convicted offenders, we also need to pay close attention to other aspects of prevention. We need comprehensive consent education in our schools from an early age and we must also educate children and adults on boundaries, how to identify when someone has crossed them and when one is at risk of crossing someone else's boundaries.
As set out in this Bill, the maximum period for electronic monitoring is six months. Tagging cannot be used as a long-term solution. If we extend that maximum period any further, we could be stretching our human rights compliance. If properly resourced and compliant with an individual's rights, electronic tagging may be useful in certain circumstances, for example, where there is a certain level of risk or where it might address immediate issues relating to offenders following conviction or upon their release. There is a benefit in somebody being tagged if they are out of prison for a specific duration. Ultimately, however, it does not provide the means for addressing the problem of sexual offending behaviour in either the short or long term.
For the period in which someone is monitored, he or she would need to be accompanied by all the relevant supports necessary to aid rehabilitation and reintegration. There is a lot more to changing people’s behaviour than just taking away control and freedom. People have to be given the education, tools and motivation to change. In some cases, they do not want to engage with the kinds of initiatives that could change behaviour. Punishment and accountability are vital as a deserved consequence for seriously harmful crimes. They also provides security and some measure of justice to victims. Having an offender held appropriately accountable for their crime is necessary for victims to have faith in the system and to encourage others to come forward and report abuse. However, the penal system cannot be about punishment alone. We need to be careful that we do not isolate offenders from society even further because all the evidence shows that this only makes the rate of recidivism rise and makes communities less safe. The object of the exercise for all of us is to use legislation as a means of changing a culture.