The Bulger case depresses us in two separate ways. First, the purposeless torture and murder of a smaller child by two small boys; and second, the threats by the mob, at the time of trial and release, to capture and presumably torture and murder these two boys.
The second scenario is possibly worse: those who threaten are adults. The newspapers that egg them on, the talk of photographs on the internet showing what the boys look like now, are concerned with revenge, not with justice.
The two boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, being only ten at the time of their crime, fell just within the age of criminal responsibility in England. In Denmark, the age of criminal responsibility is 15; in Spain, it is 16. Had the boys committed their crime anywhere in mainland Europe, they would not have faced criminal proceedings. Should we think in terms of raising the age of criminal responsibility, or are our children so much more mature than those in Continental Europe?
Those who seek to trace the boys on their release – despite the strong injunction issued by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the president of the family division in the High Court in London – are disregarding justice, the purpose of which is rehabilitation to reduce the chance of reoffending. The boys have been held for eight years under the care of experienced professionals, whose reports were seen by Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, and the parole board. On the basis of the extensive reports and a hearing with the two boys, a decision has been made to release them.
Now they are in real danger, however well protected, of being located and murdered by people who have not read the reports on their progress or attended the hearings – or indeed have no respect whatsoever for the rule of law.
If they were not being released, the two boys would be due to go to a young offenders’ institute and thence to prison. The majority of prisoners are young men, mostly illiterate, or as good as illiterate, brought up carelessly at home and inadequately schooled (most have a long truancy record).
In these conditions, Venables and Thompson would not get the rehabilitation they need: not enough training, whether moral, social or academic. The boys’ treatment in prison would most likely have a corrupting effect, said the Lord Chief Justice (the author of The Woolf Report, the most reliable book on our prisons), and they would be likely to emerge as full-blown criminals in years to come.
The only argument for sending them to prison is the need for further punishment – yet eight years’ loss of liberty is a very long time at such a young stage of life. As we do not know how much progress they have made in those eight years, we cannot usefully define the need, if any, for more punishment. The appropriate people to pass judgement on this are the judges who have read the papers. They include Woolf and Butler-Sloss, two of our most experienced and senior judges.
Some have suggested that, in order to safeguard the two boys, they should be sent abroad – but it would not be helpful to them if they go to a land where the English injunction does not have force. “I know that, no matter where they go, someone out there is waiting,” said James Bulger’s mother.
There will need to be firm action to maintain the High Court’s injunction by way of contempt proceedings, and to convince the mob of the importance of the rule of law. To this end, the media must give up their incendiary tactics and instead respect our justice system and those who pronounce upon it. It is obvious that these boys have done well under supervision – otherwise, the parole board and the two principal judges who know the facts of this case would not have spoken out as they have. It may be that the majority of English people do not understand the value of a judiciary whose decisions on sentencing are to be accepted. But if they are not accepted in this sort of case, then rehabilitation for these two boys will have no meaning and the future looks bleak.
The rule of law is a test of our civilisation, and it would be a great disaster for us all if these two boys, released by an experienced body that has studied the evidence, were to be caught by the mob or the media. One of the many websites that have been set up to bypass the injunction preventing information about the boys’ whereabouts and new identities has already carried messages that scream vendetta: “They should be hounded to the ends of the earth and persecuted till the day they take their own miserable rotten lives.” “Disgrace. Kill the scum.” Would it have made any difference to their safety on release if they had served an additional five years, even ten? I very much doubt it. The boys, and the rule of law itself, must now be protected by a watchful state.
Sir Stephen Tumim was HM chief inspector of prisons for England, 1987-95