Should James Bulger’s killers have been released?

N.B. This is just my opinion. Please read the whole writeup before voting.

In February 1993, James Bulger was abducted from a busy shopping centre by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Together they lured away the two year old, subjecting him to four hours of torture before bludgeoning him with an iron bar and leaving him to be cut up by a train. It was something that shocked the entire country; something for which many believe no amount of punishment or penitence will be adequate.

If James Bulger’s murder had taken place a just few months earlier, neither of the boys could have been charged with any criminal offence. Because they had recently passed the age of criminal responsibility, however, they were sentenced accordingly. Few people would argue that Venables and Thompson are unaccountable for their actions, but their young age has raised difficult dilemmas. Our society accepts that children are not as responsible for their actions as adults are. Their minds, their sense of morality and ability to control their impulses are not yet developed. This acceptance is the root of our many age restrictions on activities that are deemed to require a higher level of development, such as voting or smoking.

The capacity of children to develop and change is reflected in the system for dealing with young offenders. Many countries refuse to put children in front of criminal courts unless their offence was committed after the age of fifteen. Below this age, any criminal behaviour is dealt with by measures designed to ensure the child’s welfare while pursuing a course of re-education.

In the most serious cases, this can involve living in a closed institution, especially if there is a risk to the public. The purpose is not punishment but aid, helping children grow into law-abiding adults. Education, treatment and the resolution of underlying problems are hallmarks of this approach. Especially in a case as vicious as that of the Bulger killing, the perpetrators, if they have any moral sensitivity, will suffer enough through the guilt of their act and consequently further punishment should be unnecessary.

In this country, the age at which children legally have control over their actions is ten. This means that people like Venables and Thompson, who committed their crime at ten will have spent nearly half their lives in custody by the time a transfer to an adult prison might occur. The penal period recommended by the judge at their trial was eight years, a period that they have now served. The decision of the Lord Chief Justice that this was the correct sentence does not mean that the two boys will necessarily be completely released. First the Parole Board must be satisfied that they present no risk to the public and even if they are released they will be under close supervision and liable to be detained again. Any offence or failure to keep in touch with their supervisors would result in recall, meaning that these young men will already be living under constant threat of imprisonment.

The task of reintegration for these boys will not be easy, as they will need continuing specialist help as well as supervision. By all accounts, they have made good progress while in detention and prolonging that detention with a move to an adult prison would only start to undo that progress. Evidence and experience suggest that in cases like this, transitions into the community can be successfully made. Much will depend on whether they are allowed to put their past behind them and attempt to construct something approaching a normal life, something which can unfortunately only be accomplished through their being given new names and their concealment from the media.

Justice Woolf correctly decided that to continue the imprisonment of the two boys would be undesirable. In their fury over his decision, the media seem to have missed the most important point: if, as is implicit in his decision, these young men would be at risk in prison then so are all young offenders. The public refuse to accept that re-education and rehabilitation for young offenders stands an excellent chance of reforming them whereas incarceration, in general, creates only institutionalised criminals who are likely to re-offend upon release as well as representing a considerable cost to the state.