give me time. and a crayon. (the_gabih) wrote in ontd_political,
give me time. and a crayon.

Venables: age of criminal responsibility in the spotlight

6 Pictures, Images and Photos

It is a pity that the debate over the age of criminal responsibility, revived this weekend by the children's commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, has become embroiled with the issues raised by the recall of Jon Venables to prison. I don't know whether her interview with the Times was coincidental or held specifically to take advantage of the Venables affair.

The impact, though, was muddled. She made some valid general points about the inappropriateness of the legal age of responsibility being set at 10, (except in Scotland, where it will soon rise from eight to 12) but these seemed unconvincing when tested against the facts of the James Bulger killing. Her arguments would have been given greater serious consideration at another time, but then she might not have got such prominence in the media.

We lock up too many delinquent children, she says. The approach of most western European countries is "more therapeutic, more family and community-based, more about reparation than simply locking somebody up". But she went on to argue that Venables and Thompson should not have been prosecuted, though she was not for a moment suggesting they should not have been detained for a long time.

The killers of James Bulger were not tried in a youth court, where the public and media are absent and trials not reported. They were tried in the full glare of an English courtroom, teeming with journalists and an atmosphere of hatred. The lawyers tried to lessen the formality by shedding their wigs but the effect could only have been minimal.

Such a circus was not necessary. But a secret trial would have been unacceptable for a crime of such horrifying gravity. More importantly, how much did it matter that the boys were publicly put through the formalities of a full trial, rather than dealt with behind closed doors? There would have been little difference to their subsequent treatment; they would have been detained somewhere secure for several years, and provided with psychologists, psychiatrists, educators and counsellors.

What happened to Thompson and Venables is not what happens to the huge majority of other children who end up being locked up for their crimes. Atkinson's remarks about those other child offenders deserve further debate, but will not receive it. The Ministry of Justice was exceptionally quick to respond to her, unyieldingly.

The government has no intention of raising the age of criminal responsibility, nor changing the system of criminal justice affecting children.

There is no reason to believe a Conservative government would do otherwise. Nor do I think the public seeks change.

Fundamentally, the reason why so many other European nations do things so differently does not have much to do with the law but with the way children generally, not just delinquent ones, are regarded in their societies. That is a question for philosophers and historians.


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