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10 MAR 2010

Penny Booth: Jon Venables

Jon Venables, the Bulger case and which way to turn

Penny BoothLike many I remember the original case in 1993. One has to state how sorry one is although expressing this amidst the current press coverage is becoming bland and unnecessary - it is a real tragedy and it was a horrific crime. There are issues for family law in particular - the tragedy for the families concerned, the horrific murder and the circumstances surrounding it which add to the sense of unbelievable horror. The consequences for the perpetrators and their families all impact on considering how children are treated when crimes are committed by them.

What's to be done now Jon Venables has been recalled?

Society must be protected - nothing can now be done for James Bulger and the trial was supposed to provide the requirement that justice be done. So, protection must be a clear imperative for the mechanisms of justice and crime control we have available. What we also have to do is consider what is best for Venables in the light of the protection of society. That requirement of protection may well extend further than is immediately obvious.

If Jon Venables has been involved in breaking the law then he must face trial; if he has broken the terms of his release then both he and the rest of us must be protected. Whatever he has done, he must be treated as any other accused person, but with an eye to his status as a released lifer who committed the original crime when a mere child himself. That is not to lessen the responsibility or the guilt of the original crime from this young man, it is stating fact.

The media interest in Venables is understandable, as is the fury/sadness of the mother of James Bulger - but neither can be a logical force in decision-making under these circumstances, and those interests cannot be allowed to determine what we now do. Rife speculation and demands for the resignation of probation officers, appearances on television to demand that both Venables and Thomson should now be incarcerated forever does not help anyone, and suggests a gratuitous fascination with the macabre and a reflection of something one hardly dares to indicate. If this had happened to my child I might well feel the same, but I also know that part of my feelings would be fed and promoted by a tremendous sense of guilt that my baby had been murdered and that I had not protected him. Illogical as that feeling may be, it is an imperative in the current situation but cannot be allowed to fuel speculation.

More speculation about Venables will not help to protect the rest of us as it may result in a failed attempt to prosecute him for any crime he might have committed whilst out on licence. He must face trial if there is a case against him, and he has the right to defend himself against those charges just like everyone else. It might also hinder attempts to find others involved in wrong-doing and that would be unjust. An unfair trial is no trial at all. To do any less than this undermines our attempts to protect human rights. We cannot call on the rights of victims by denying those of perpetrators and still expect to maintain a just society.

The bigger picture of what we do with child criminals (if that terminology is the appropriate one to use) is an issue we will have to face. To periodically review our policy would be appropriate and it now may be that as a society we shall have to decide whether our current regime of treatment of child offenders is appropriate or not; the price we pay for justice is to extend it to all.

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.

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