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The Laz Word...on crime and punishment

We like our retribution and we like it big and public, writes Larry Neild

Published on March 15th 2010.

The Laz Word...on crime and punishment

HAD things turned out differently James Bulger would have this week left his teenage years behind, celebrating his 20th birthday. He was born March 16, 1990.

By now he could well have been married, perhaps with children. Instead his family are left with memories of a toddler and thoughts of what could have been.

But the stormy debate about crime, punishment and children still rumbles on.

Child Commissioner Maggie Atkinson has sparked anger for comments saying Robert Thompson and Jon Venables should not, at the age of 10, have been tried in a public adult court. She wants the age of criminal responsibility raised to 12, a suggestion immediately rejected by the Justice Department. I know at the age of 10 I was well aware of right and wrong.

At the Preston Crown Court trial in 1993, the opening sessions concentrated on arguments about whether two 10 years olds were capable of understanding wrongdoing in the legal sense. Barrister Richard Henriques QC successfully challenged the principal of “doli incapax” (incapable of understanding wrongdoing).

The decision to stage what was always going to be a show trial in an adult court was also questioned.

It's still rare for children under 14 to be taken before such a court. Juvenile courts are held in a different environment. Defendants aged 17 and under cannot be named, there is no public gallery though the media is admitted. The thought is the rehabilitation of young offenders is more likely if they are protected from the glare of public exposure.

Maggie Atkinson: Wants law change

Yet at the end of the Bulger trial the judge ruled the guilty could be named because of the nature of the murder and public reaction to it. It struck me at the time that by doing this, the boys were instantly doomed to a lifelong sentence.

Should they have been named? Think about the number of people arrested for murder in Merseyside in the past year and try to remember their names.

The showpiece trial

To families of victims, those names will be etched into their memories forever, but I can't remember any names apart from those behind the terrible shooting of young Rhys Jones.

If Venables and Thompson notch up the Biblical three score years and ten it means they will have carried the burden of their deeds for 60 years.

Is that too much of a burden for anybody to carry? Of course many will say yes it is.

Yet rehabilitation is as much for society as it is for the guilty. Isn't it better for everyone if wrongdoers to return to the straight and narrow?

In 1999 the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thompson and Venables had not received a fair trial by their case being heard in public in an adult court.

The trial judge recommended they serve a minimum of eight years, but this was increased to 10 years soon afterwards.

That wonderful organ, the Sun presented a petition to the then Home Secretary Michael Howard, signed by 280,000 people, demanding the two killers serve at least 15 years.

The House of Lords intervened and described the increased tariff to 10 years as institutionalised vengeance by a politician playing to the gallery. The Lords ruled it was unlawful for a Home Secretary to decide on minimum sentences for offenders aged under 18.

David Blunkett, as Home Secretary, allowed the boys to be released in the summer of 2001 after a six month review by the Parole Board which ruled the boys were no longer a threat to public safety. Psychiatrists in their reports concluded similar.

Should a similar crime occur today I believe it would be the same all over again: . Anyone over the age of 10 would end up in an adult court, probably named, and the price they would subsequently pay would be akin to a living death.

Putting aside the understandable views of victims' families, the public, at large, demands public retribution fuelled by social networking sites and a lynch-mob media using pens and notebooks with which to publicly “hang” the guilty.

It is up to society to decide if that is what it wants, and the current answer seems to be a resounding yes.

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10 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Liverpool WagMarch 15th 2010.

Er, how old do you think Larry is? Before the WAR????

AnonymousMarch 15th 2010.

An ex girlfriend and relative of the Bulgers told me they knew the identities and whereabouts of Venables and Thompson. Apparently they were offered an opportunity to meet them. She said Ralph did meet them but Denise didn't.Whether any of it is true I don't know.

Media HangmenMarch 15th 2010.

I think it was a legal team hired by the media that argued at Preston Crown Court for the two boys to be named. Until then they were known simply as Boy A (Thompson) and Boy B (Venables). The rest, as they say, is history.

LynchyMarch 15th 2010.

I blame the parents. They are really responsible yet they weren't even charged!

AnonymousMarch 15th 2010.

Is there anybody out there who would be willing to tie the noose around the necks of two 10 year old boys, as some have suggested should have been their fate. It was a terrible, terrible deed. The entire world was shocked and stunned. It is not a case of feeling pity for these two boys, but thinking what kind of society will we have if we condone the execution of boys. Surely to God we cannot sink so low.

Pop TartMarch 15th 2010.

The Scum will be trying to score brownie points with the people of Liverpool forever more.

AnonymousMarch 15th 2010.

If you knew the full story them two "innocent" boys set out that day to kidnap and kill a baby.....that is premeditation

AnonymousMarch 15th 2010.

Some guy called one of the radio phone-ins today and said Venables and Thompson should have been executed as soon as the guilty verdict was brought in. His arguement was we, as society, abort, potentially problem (unborn) children so why not do away with problem children anyway. Welcome to the animal jungle.

JoanMarch 15th 2010.

They were children at the time - brutalised, unhappy children do terrible things, but they are still children and should be treated as such. I see children on a daily basis who are not so far away from the condition of those two boys - anti-social is not a string enough word for what they are - but children aren't born like that, they are not inherently evil, only circumstance can turn out children who behave in this way. As a society we need to remove the conditions that foster children with this nihilistic, self-hating, vicious out-look - let's get to them before they become the next headline. Let's challenge drug dealers who think it's ok to use kids to do their dirty work, parents who are too stressed/pissed/inadequate to know where their kids are and the move away from the attitude that someone else is always to blame once and for all.My thoughts are with the Bulgers and relatives at this time however - the pain of this being raked over yet again must be nigh on unbearable.

AnonymousMarch 15th 2010.

I seem to remember reading they'd said "Let's get a kid". The horror of those words has stayed with me, probably because Jamie Bulger was only three months older than my own son.

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