Condemn a little more and understand a little less
This week has seen an outpouring of anger towards Jon Venables, one of the two boys responsible for James Bulger’s murder in 1993, who (now aged 27) has reportedly breached the terms of his parole and been recalled to prison. Since this information was released, home secretary Alan Johnson and justice secretary Jack Straw have made contradictory statements on whether there is a ‘public right to know’ the details of Venables’s breach and public attention has primarily been focused on this issue. In response to the story, tabloid newspaper blogs have been filled with comments condemning the decision to grant parole to Venables and Thompson in the first place and roaring for the re-introduction of the death penalty.
However, a more serious set of issues than the details surrounding the parole breach are arguably: why Thompson’s and Venables’ identities were made public in the first place, given that they were only 10 years old when they committed the crime, and whether it is right that the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is so low, with serious crimes committed by children in England dealt with through the criminal justice system, rather than the child welfare system. Since 1964 youth offending in Scotland has been dealt with almost wholly through the welfare system, on the basis that criminal behaviour in a child must be strongly related to failures in their upbringing.
After the trial of Venables and Thompson, the presiding judge Mr Justice Morland added weight to the view that there must be wider societal responsibilities for the boys’ crime, arguing that details of the boys’ “home background, upbringing, family circumstances, parental behaviour and relationships were needed in the public domain so that informed and worthwhile debate can take place for the public good in the case of grave crimes by young children." However, at the same time, the then prime minister John Major told a Sunday newspaper that “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”, thereby indicating very limited support for such a debate and setting the tone for future discussion of the case, as played out in the tabloid press this week.
If the identities of 10 year old Venables and Thompson had not been made public in the first place, Jack Straw and other key actors in the criminal justice system would not be having such difficulty preserving their anonymity today. Rather than obsessively focusing on the personalities of Venables and Thompson as individuals, and thereby limiting the potential for their successful rehabilitation 17 years on, we should be asking ourselves how we can prevent similar crimes from being committed by children in the future, and how child offenders can best be dealt with, should such a serious crime occur again.