As horrible as the murder of James Bulger was in 1993.The need to uphold the anonymity of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson must be the priority of our Criminal Justice System if we are to avoid a descent into a MediEvil witch hunt ending in one, or both, of the murderers death. What this case does show is that a far more effective form of justice and punishment is rehabilitation, not retribution.
Jon Venable and Robert Thompson committed an awful crime which everyone agrees warranted the immediate involvement of state services in these two disturbed young boys lives. But, as result of the political establishment buckling under typical tabloid sensationalism – and as a result of an outdated justice system – Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were tried in an adult court at the age of ten.
If we truly want to live in a liberal and free society then we must advocate the rehabilitation of criminals over retribution in every case. On the issue of child criminals; the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to at least 12, if not raised in line with European countries such as Italy and Spain to the age of 14 or 16 respectively. I find it worrying that the tabloid press would have you believe that the vast majority of British people believe child murderers should be imprisoned for life. If the majority of British people do think that – and I hope we don’t – then what is being advocated is total retribution for serious crimes such as murder. In effect, this equates to relinquishing an individual of their liberty for life through life imprisonment without parole, or ultimately death. I hope we live in a society where this view is not the norm. I hope capital punishment will never be brought back. We have surely moved on from the days of hangings. Furthermore, we should never put ourselves in a position where the state can legitimately murder its own citizens.
When I talk of rehabilitation, I am not advocating that murderers should avoid imprisonment. Of course an individual who is a danger to society should be imprisoned. But the aim of that imprisonment should be entirely devoted to the rehabilitation of that individual so the state can be certain he/she no longer poises a risk to wider society upon release. At the moment, our criminal justice system does not do this. Proper rehabilitation is a long term process that stretches beyond the term of imprisonment served by the individual. It stretches to long term assistance in finding employment, accessing health services, and undertaking educational courses. It should not only stretch to the supervision by a probation officer to check on the individuals behaviour – although of course this should be one role of the probation services.
Back to Venables and Thompson, I watch in amazement at the archive footage shown on TV of two blue police vans escorting Venables and Thompson, flanked by an angry baiting crowd along the road, and one individual attempting to attack the vans before he is restrained by police. These absurd pictures seem to contradict the same tabloidesque sensationalism meted against depictions of extreme Islam and the apparent impending implementation of Sharia Law. It is argued by the tabloids that Sharia Law is a barbaric and un-balanced form of justice that is ‘spreading’ throughout our country. Yet, the same western media that takes the moral high ground against examples of Sharia law abroad such as the public stoning of Du’a Khalil Aswad(a 17 year old Iraqi Kurd), then seems to tow the line of the baying mob depicted in the footage mentioned above. What are we advocating? Apart from a major contradiction, recent news coverage would have one believe that what we are advocating is some form of total retribution for Jon Venables and Robert Thompson such as life imprisonment or even execution.
The most sensible comments to come out of the current news coverage of the Bulger case is the following comment made by Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, the probation officers union in The Independent (07/03/10) ‘”A disturbed child who kills, then spends eight years in a secure unit and then nine years having to pretend they’re somebody else is bound to be deeply psychologically affected. It’s not surprising that he may have revealed his true identity, given the enormity of what he’s done and the difficulty of coming to terms with that and a new identity.” Venables being recalled to prison is the “worst possible outcome” given the years spent trying to rehabilitate him, he added’. That for me sums up; the case for the continued rehabilitation and maintenance of anonymity for Venables and Thompson, as well as the case for rehabilitation of serious offenders – especially child criminals – over punitive punishment.
The James Bulger murder is deeply upsetting and horrific. Murder is of course one of, if not the ultimate, crime one can commit, but the Bulger case is set apart because the perpetrators were ten year old boys (the age of a year 4 or 5 primary school child). To argue that they are fully accountable for their actions and should be treated like adults in a criminal court – or even more absurdly that they should receive lifetime punishment, even execution, for their crimes – disregards their un-developed cognitive abilities to be fully responsible for their actions. Further, if we do not see it as morally correct to permanently take away an individuals liberty then rehabilitative methods of justice and punishment must always prevail over punitive retribution.
First published March 16th 2009