A PSYCHOLOGICAL treatment for sex offenders which was scrapped in England and Wales after it was linked to reoffending was also being delivered in Northern Ireland’s prisons, The Detail can reveal.
A review of the scheme by Westminster’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ) found prisoners who had completed the prison-based programme were slightly more likely to reoffend than those who had not.
Interim changes were made to the course, known as the Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme (Core SOTP), after a replacement programme was approved in 2015.
However, this was not made public until June this year when the MOJ published its study.
A new programme called Horizon, which was introduced in England and Wales in March, will be delivered from September to men in Northern Ireland's prisons who are deemed to be at medium risk of sexual reoffending.
A second scheme targeting those at a higher risk of reoffending, called Kaizen, will be implemented at a later date.
The Detail can also reveal that prison officials in Northern Ireland were first advised of the plan to withdraw the Core programme in 2013, though this preceded the publication of the report that identified the risk of reoffending.
The MOJ report raised concerns over the impact of treating sex offenders in groups and noted: "It is possible that attendance on the Core prison-based SOTP may increase the propensity to sexually re-offend amongst sex offenders.
“This may have been as a result of the sole emphasis on group treatment: recent meta-analysis has indicated the importance of including more individualised modules in sex offender treatment."
It added: "Group treatment may also 'normalise' individuals’ behaviour: when stories are shared, their behaviour may not be seen as wrong or different; or at worst, contacts and sources associated with sexual offending may be shared."
A total of 44 sex offenders have been enrolled on the scheme in Maghaberry and Magilligan prisons since 2001 until it was replaced in May this year.
Correspondence obtained under Freedom of Information legislation shows Westminster's National Offender Management Service (NOMS) - which was replaced by Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service in April - wrote to treatment managers and parole board members in Northern Ireland in October 2015.
The letter to treatment managers, from NOMS's Head of Interventions Services, said: "Dr [redacted] and his team are in the process of updating the suite of programmes for men convicted of sexual offences. The update aims to better reflect the latest evidence about what is most likely to be effective in reducing sexual recidivism and to align delivery across custody and community settings.
"The first programme received full accreditation earlier this year which we have named Horizon. A phased implementation will commence during the forthcoming commissioning round."
Asked to comment on the new research and planned changes to the sex offender programme, the Northern Ireland Prison Service said: "The prison service remains committed to working with people in prison, supporting them to work towards positive and offence-free future lives. This will mean continuing to learn and develop best practice in light of evidence from research and practice, nationally and internationally."
When asked if there was any evidence to suggest those who took the Core programme in Northern Ireland subsequently reoffended, the spokesperson added: "Due to the small sample size, it has not been possible to conduct an evaluation specifically based on the outcomes for those men who have completed Core SOTP within Northern Ireland.
"It was suspended following guidance from Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service who had suspended delivery in England and Wales."
Cara Cash, chief executive of leading counselling charity Nexus NI, said: “Nexus NI works with those affected by sexual violence every day.
“We see the lifelong impact that these crimes have on their victims and hope that anyone affected by them knows that they are not alone and they can seek help. We and our colleagues across the community and voluntary and public sector are working hard to break the silence on sexual violence and will continue to do so.”
Latest figures from the Probation Board for Northern Ireland show there were 89 sex offenders on licence in March 2017 which is down from 104 the previous year and 123 in March 2012. Of the 89 on licence this year, 54 are under supervision in the community while the remainder are in custody.
In June, the Public Prosecution Service revealed it received 41 more referrals from police about sex offences in 2016/2017 compared to the previous year.
This equates to 1,228 referrals between April 2016 and March 2017 and 1,187 during the previous year. The figures do not show how many of these resulted in a conviction.
Meanwhile the Police Service of Northern Ireland reported an increase in recorded sex crimes to 3,178 offences in the 12 months leading up to June 2017 from 3,108 offences in the 12 months up to June 2016.
WHAT IS THE CORE SEX OFFENDER TREATMENT PROGRAMME?
The Core programme is a cognitive-behavioural psychological treatment for medium to high risk sex offenders which aimed to reduce sexual reoffending.
It was first approved for use in prisons in 1992 and has been subject to various amendments, such as changing the eligibility criteria in 2006 so that the scheme was no longer open to lower risk offenders unless they were convicted of a sexual murder.
It was delivered to groups of eight men in sessions that took place over a total of approximately 180 hours.
Core SOTP (Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme) has been delivered within the Northern Ireland Prison Service since 1998. Out of the 44 prisoners who enrolled on the scheme since 2001, 36 were at Maghaberry and eight were at Magilligan where the programme was only delivered in 2015/2016.
Prisoners must consent to the treatment; be serving at least a 12-month sentence; have a current or previous sex offence conviction, and have accepted their culpability to be eligible for the programme.
Other treatments for sex offenders exist, including the Extended programme for those considered at a higher risk of reoffending which is being replaced by a treatment called Kaizen.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service confirmed this will happen "once relevant training and resources are in place to implement this".
MINISTRY OF JUSTICE STUDY FINDINGS
The MOJ review published in June this year, which focussed on sex offenders in England and Wales, found 10 per cent of those who had taken the Core programme committed at least one sexual offence when released from prison compared to eight per cent among the inmates who were not on the programme.
It also revealed 4.4 per cent of the psychologically treated offenders committed another offence relating to explicit images of children compared to 2.9 per cent of those prisoners who were in the control group.
The report concluded: "The results suggest that while Core SOTP in prisons is generally associated with little or no changes in sexual and non-sexual reoffending, there were some statistically significant differences.
“The small changes in the sexual reoffending rate suggest that either Core SOTP does not reduce sexual reoffending as it intends to do, or that the true impact of the programme was not detected."
The interim changes that were approved in 2015 included moving away from a focus on prisoners developing empathy for past victims, to instead developing preventative strategies.
Prisoners are also now being encouraged to identify and take responsibility for changing risk factors that preceded their offending rather than giving a detailed account of their offence during group sessions which was found may have helped "normalise" the behaviour.
The MOJ study looked at 2,562 men who had enrolled on the Core SOTP programme between 2000 and 2012 before being released from prison. They were matched with 13,219 men who did not complete the scheme and researchers followed the offenders for an average of eight years.
There were 51 more reoffenders in the treated group than the untreated group and offences relating to breaches of a sentence order were not included in the data being analysed.
A letter from Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service to prison officials in June this year described the findings as "disappointing". It added: "There are limitations to the research which include the fact that it was not possible to match the groups on deviant sexual interest, which we know to be critical feature of reoffending.
"Further, the impact of other rehabilitative activity that might have been received is not known. This includes whether or not the participants attended another programme in prison or in the community, differences in offender management and supervision, and other reintegration factors such as employment."
Nexus NI: Belfast 028 9032 6803, Derry 028 7126 0566 and Enniskillen 028 6632 0046
Women’s Aid’s 24 Hour Domestic and Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
The Rowan (Sexual Assault Referral Centre for Northern Ireland - for all ages who have been sexually abused, assaulted or raped) helpline number: 0800 389 4424
NSPCC helpline: 0808 800 5000