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The ‘Bulger killer charged over child porn' headline last week (as a result of a partial lifting of the reporting ban) brings to mind questions over what we do with children who have committed serious crimes - perhaps the better question is what we do next.
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged ten at the time, were convicted of killing James Bulger in 1993, and were released on licence in 2001. Venables was recalled to prison in February this year, and is accused of downloading to his computer graphic and indecent images of children. Perhaps it is too simple to say that he has been accused but not convicted - not yet, anyway - or even that he could have done this anyway, with or without the Bulger name attached to his own. The latter point is one raised even in the ‘quality' press who are also reporting that certain Bulger family members have repeatedly called for Venables' new identity (both boys received new identities upon their release in 2001) and whereabouts, and the details of the charges against him to be revealed. The message is that Venables did this (if he did do it) because he killed James Bulger, and that the two crimes are connected. There are even heavy hints from the solicitor of James Bulger's father reported in the ‘quality' press that there was a possible sexual element in the killing of James Bulger which were suppressed at the time of the original case. Not at all helpful.
We read in the papers complaints about the cost of keeping individuals in prison, we read diatribes against prisoners being treated with ‘kid gloves'; when prisoners are released we complain about that, too. We read about failures of the probation service to supervise released and ‘now-we-know-they're dangerous' prisoners despite the ‘dangerous' supposedly being still in prison. We cannot have it both ways - you cannot prevent the cost of prison and then complain when they are released. You simply cannot say that all you want is to see justice done, then haunt the case with media ‘re-tweets' on the Bulger case and call that ‘justice'. That is not justice, it is mob-rule. The death of James Bulger was revolting, but so is the denial of justice.
What are we doing with children that when they reach their twenties they are so disturbed they are potentially unfit to be in society?
We steal childhood from children in shop fronts and windows, we sexualise female children with heels on their shoes, bikinis and fashion-consciousness that delves deep into their psyche and attacks their self-esteem at vulnerable times. Our schoolgirls and boys have their minds invaded by matters of adulthood before they are really ready. I am not calling for a back-to-basics ‘keep them in short trousers' pre-WW2 approach to childhood, but for a consideration that we could help by not expecting children to be adults before they are ready.
In March this year I wrote in these pages that we needed to be very careful about rushing to incarcerate as a knee-jerk reaction - my final paragraph then read"
The bigger picture of what we do with child criminals (if that terminology is the appropriate one to use) is an issue we will have to face. To periodically review our policy would be appropriate and it now may be that as a society we shall have to decide whether our current regime of treatment of child offenders is appropriate or not; the price we pay for justice is to extend it to all.
I don't think that I have changed my mind.
Penny Booth is running the Great North Run for Age UK on 19 September, 2010. This is a half marathon and should she manage to complete the 13.1 miles then please coinsider giving a donation to Age Uk via www.justgiving.com/PennyBooth