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Wednesday, April 06, 2011 

Scum-watch: Still demanding a pound of flesh.

Around every decade or so, a crime is committed that either through the cruelty involved, the number of bereaved relatives it leaves behind or the unusual nature of the perpetrators temporarily appears to transfix, even horrify an entire nation. The murder of the 2-year-old James Bulger by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson not only left a country asking itself how two only slightly older children could apparently collude to commit such a wicked crime, snatching him when he was out of the sight of his mother for a matter of seconds, his body left to be run over by a train on a nearby line, it also had a direct impact on the politics of criminal justice. With a certain Tony Blair condemning the Conservatives over their attitude to the society he maintained their policies had established, John Major urged the country to condemn a little more and understand a little less, while Michael Howard went on to declare that prison works. New Labour agreed, and only now with Ken Clarke as justice secretary has that attitude been called into question.

When Jon Venables, having been released in 2001 after serving 8 years of a life sentence, was last year arrested and subsequently convicted of possessing child pornography there was an inevitable and understandable inquest into whether he could and should have been better supervised following his release. While a report by the probation service reached the conclusion that it would have required 24-hour surveillance to have stopped him from accessing the material, and that he had had sufficient and appropriate contact with those in charge of overseeing his release on licence, it nonetheless challenged the assumption that many, including myself had reached that the treatment he received during his sentence had achieved its goal of attempting to heal this most damaged of individuals. As Blake Morrison, who had followed the Bulger case from the beginning had wrote, Venables and Thompson were not beyond redemption, as some had dismissed them. He rightly stuck to that view even after his second conviction.

If we were too triumphalist or comfortable in declaring that Venables and Thompson were positive examples of how the criminal justice system in incredibly difficult, even unprecedented circumstances could deal with those so young and only 8 years later decide they were ready to be released back into society, albeit under new identities, then at least Venables' return to custody has allowed us to reassess the regime which he and Thompson were held under should it be required again. In this spirit, it's right that it's been revealed that Venables had sex with a worker at the secure unit he was being held in when he was 17. The woman was suspended at the time and never returned to work. It's also right to wonder whether Venables should have been allowed to live in Cheshire, close enough to where the murder was committed to be able to return to Liverpool, something explicitly forbidden under the terms of his release. That he had also received a warning after being involved in a fight, and was also cautioned for possession for cocaine without being returned to prison is also concerning in light of his re-conviction, although they were finer judgements.

Utterly irrelevant however to any review of their time in custody and subsequent supervision after release is the revelation that Venables and also Thompson have both been on foreign holidays while under licence. It's unclear quite why the news of Venables' holiday has re-emerged now, as the Daily Mirror first reported on it last year, without it making much of a stir. That's for the simple reason that in this instance there is no scandal: Venables not only went through the proper channels in order to travel abroad, requesting permission from his probation officers, the decision on whether to allow it or not went all the way up to the home secretary, with David Blunkett giving his authorisation back in 2004. It wasn't until 2007 when he actually travelled to Norway, having again had to seek permission from the justice secretary, which Jack Straw subsequently gave. It's clear it also wasn't a simple signing of a form without as much as a thought: risk assessments were undertaken, although it's not apparent if the authorities in Norway were informed of his visit.

If there was little public interest in it being revealed that Venables visited Norway, then there is none whatsoever in the Sun splashing on its front page that Robert Thompson went on what it describes as a "secret lads' trip to Europe". He too only did so after gaining the proper permission. No one is questioning or suggesting that Thompson has in a similar fashion breached the conditions of his parole, nor has he committed any offences after being released; why then should he be denied the right to travel abroad with friends when he was given authorised to do so at the very highest level? Rather than being about concern at how he could breach his licence, or how this sends the wrong message to victims, it instead seems to be about unending retribution and vindictiveness. While it can certainly be argued that both were treated leniently and given the very opportunities that they denied to James, quite what purpose denying a visit to mainland Europe would serve is difficult to ascertain. Indeed, it would instead suggest to Thompson that despite having done everything asked of him, he's still to be punished seemingly in perpetuity. And once again, it seems in incredibly dubious taste for John Kay, convicted of the manslaughter of his wife on the grounds of diminished responsibility to be one of the reporters responsible for an article which carries such a subtext.

If the tabloids had got their way from the beginning, Venables and Thompson would never have been given new identities, leaving them if not under the constant fear of attack then almost certainly ostracised from society. This it seems would have been preferable to the attempts, wholly successful or not in the case of Venables, to reintroduce them into the community with a second chance. Some would have denied them even that. To pretend that redemption is ever truly achieved is dubious in all but the rarest of cases, but to withhold even the possibility of it is absurder still.

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"Redemption" is rarely achieved for whom? Because I'm pretty sure that most criminals stop offending altogether well before they reach retirement age. Or do you think that murderers specifically tend to reoffend if not prevented? Or is it just about children who kill other children? (Both Mary Bell and Robert Thompson seem to have done OK, so that's two out of three.)

I wonder if you slipped into thinking of redemption in Protestant terms - the spiritual state of being without sin: it's true that very few people attain that. And the Sun does tend to write as if the job of the criminal justice system was to separate the sinners from the innocent - the latter including its readers, of course. That's part of what makes the tabloid style of writing about crime so powerful (and so infuriating).

If reason and sense prevailed in this world, the standards to which the Sun sinks would prima facie exclude their proprietors, News International (or whatever they call themselves to dodge taxes), from extending their ownership of BSKYB on the basis that they are not fit and proper persons to control a porn empire let alone a respectable TV company. But then of course, Richard Desmond was allowed to buy Channel 5. And we haven't started on the News of the World's alleged malfeasances.

O tempora o mores.

Phil: To be clear, I was thinking both in terms of being of forgiven by the victim, or their family, which is very rarely achieved, and secondly for the perpetrator to be able to forgive themselves, which despite what the tabloids tell us is also incredibly difficult to achieve. The statistics tend to suggest that murderers (and indeed most sex offenders) only commit the one crime and don't generally reoffend, so it certainly isn't that. Nor is it about children, although certainly when such a terrible crime is committed by a child it means that it's utterly impossible to escape from its shadow, as Venables found and Thompson will have been reminded when he saw yesterday's Sun.

Speaking of Protestant ethics though, John Kay should perhaps have adhered to the old nostrum that those without sin cast the first stone.

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