When news leaked that Jon Venables had been taken back into prison earlier this month, deeply painful memories were stirred up once again. Back in 1993, Venables, along with his fellow ten-year-old, Robert Thompson, committed the horrific murder of the toddler, James Bulger, a crime that traumatised the nation. In 2001 Venables and Thompson were released from prison under licence and given new identities but now Venables is back inside.
The news raised not only intense feelings among many people but incited new controversy. What had Venables done to be detained once more? The press was full of speculation but the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, would say only that allegations had been made of serious breaches to the terms of his release from prison. No criminal charges had, at least as yet, been made against Venables, but it was important that details of the allegations should be kept secret in case charges were ultimately brought. Many people were unsatisfied with this explanation of why they were being kept in the dark.
Now a perhaps even greater controversy has arisen. Dr. Maggie Atkinson, the children’s commissioner for England, has said that Venables and Thompson should never have been prosecuted in an adult court in the first place. In her view they were simply too young.
In an interview in The Times last week Dr. Atkinson said: “The age of criminal responsibility in this country is ten — that’s too low, it should certainly be moved up to twelve. In some European countries it’s fourteen. People may be offenders but they are also children. Even the most hardened of youngsters who have committed some very difficult crimes are not beyond being frightened.”
Dr. Atkinson acknowledged that the murder committed by Venables and Thompson was a 'terrible case'. “What they did was exceptionally unpleasant and the fact that a little boy ended up dead is not something that the nation can easily forget. But they shouldn’t have been tried in an adult court because they were still children.
“In most Western European nations they have a completely different way of intervening with youngsters who’ve committed crime. Most of their approaches are more therapeutic, more family and community-based, more about reparation than simply locking somebody up.”
Dr. Atkinson argues that it is wrong to describe a child as evil. “None of us is born a good person or an evil person. The backgrounds from which we come, and whether we are nurtured and secure, will shape our character.”
"Truly evil by ten"
But these views were condemned by James Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus. She said: “This woman owes James and me an apology for her twisted and insensitive comments. Then she should resign or be sacked. To say that his killers should not have been tried in an adult court is stupid. They committed an adult crime – a cold-bloodied murder that was planned and premeditated – and they were tried accordingly.”
She went on: “It is a shock to people like Dr. Atkinson that children can be truly evil by ten. But it is a fact and I fear there will be more of them and we need laws to be tightened up so we can deal with them.”
It will be hardly surprising to many people that the mother of a murdered child should take such an attitude to his murderers. But Dr. Atkinson was talking not only about the Bulger case but about the wider issue of the age at which people should be thought old enough to bear criminal responsibility. Lady Butler-Sloss, the former judge who granted Venables and Thompson anonymity in 2001, said she had great sympathy with Dr. Atkinson’s point of view but felt the public would not accept it.
That judgement about public opinion seemed to be born out by political responses to the commissioner’s remarks. The Ministry of Justice issued a prompt statement saying: “We do not intend to raise the age of criminal responsibility. It is not in the interests of justice, of victims, or the young people themselves, to prevent serious offenders being challenged.”
And Ken Clarke, the Conservative shadow cabinet minister who was Home Secretary at the time of the Bulger murder, took the same view, while defending Dr. Atkinson’s right to express her own. He said: “I do not agree with the commissioner but she obviously should not resign for expressing an opinion on a perfectly serious, quite difficult subject.”
Not in line with Europe
Some commentators have argued that the broader issue needs separating from the specific case of James Bulger’s murder. Of the latter, they argue that the intense public interest in the case meant that the public would never have tolerated its being brought in a youth court, where there is far less openness than in an adult court. But in any event, the outcome would have been no different: Venables and Thompson would have been locked away for a long time while psychiatrists, counsellors and the rest would have tried to treat any condition underlying their horrific crime, they say.
But for other, less heinous young criminals, these commentators argue, ten is too young for criminal responsibility to be assumed. Not only is Britain out on a limb in Europe by having such a young age of criminal responsibility but it is so too in the world at large. As long ago as 2003, a UN report called for Britain to raise the age ‘considerably’. So is Dr. Atkinson right or wrong?