Opinion: A liberal approach to the Jon Venables case and rehabilitation

The Jon Venables case – one of the two children convicted in 1993 of the murder of James Bulger – raises challenges both to liberals and for liberals.

This is apparently a high profile repudiation of rehabilitation, particularly given enhanced levels of resources dedicated to supporting and apparently “curing” this individual. A second challenge for the liberal is how to respond to the baying sections of the press and public demonising a single offender.

The natural liberal reaction is to reject the “demands of the mob” as the way offenders are treated carries multiple messages about the values of a society. Likewise, rehabilitation depends on condemning actions not people if there is going to be a chance to change.

A difficulty in discussing serious offences is they can become a zero sum. Any compassion for the perpetrator can be interpreted as doing disservice to the victim or in part condoning a terrible crime. For the record there is no doubt that the killing of Jamie Bulger was a hideous, horrifying act. However, justice for a victim and perpetrator do not have to be in opposition.

A liberal approach can aim to resolve this conflict and produce just outcomes. The difficulty in the case of Jon Venables is that conflict was built into the justice process from the start.

Usually in criminal cases the youth of a defendant rightly serves as mitigation. In the James Bulger trial this was turned on its head, the age of the perpetrators only served to underline their apparent evil. This was further perpetuated by the manner and conduct of the trial. No liberal could support young children being tried in the public and media glare of an adult Criminal Court. If a defendant is too young to begin to understand the proceedings it must in some way follow that their culpability for the offence is lessened. Likewise, how could a liberal support the treatment of two children in the criminal justice system becoming a political football.

Jon Venables has recently been convicted of a serious albeit sadly unexceptional offence. Logistically, the offence can be as difficult to commit as downloading music tracks. Some offenders might downplay the seriousness of downloading compared to “contact offences” that they have committed, been the victim of or fantasised about or see this as a “safer” way to deal with their predilection. However, reports of Jon Venables’ statements indicate he does not fall in this category and there is recognition that his offence will have indirectly perpetuated serious child abuse.

When a “life licence” offender is recalled to custody there is no timescale on whether they will ever be released. Clearly this not a decision to be taken lightly and there is generally a higher threshold for breach to trigger recall than for determinate sentences. It is apparent that Jon Venables was arrested twice by the police for new offences but neither matter proceeded to court. An important question is whether issues over his “identity” affected prosecution decisions, partly as this might have influenced recall decisions. However, any liberal should also question if this man was denied access to criminal justice (as a defendant) due to his identity.

The liberal response to the case of Jon Venables is that the circumstances were exceptional. We should be confident to assert that the ideals and practice of rehabilitation are in no way diminished. It is right to question how this individual was treated by the justice system from the outset and how this may have undermined the prospects of rehabilitation.

A liberal can confidently condemn serious crime but still believe in justice and rehabilitation.

* Dan Roper is Lib Dem PPC for Broadland, and a Senior Probation Officer and currently Public Protection Manager at a prison.

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9 Comments

  • Andrew Wimble 2nd Aug '10 - 4:56pm

    It appears that in this case rehabilitation was unsuccessful, at least in part. That does not however mean that it will always be unsuccessful, or that it is wrong to try.

  • Andrea Gill 2nd Aug '10 - 5:12pm

    Wasn’t there a very similar case in a Nordic county where they didn’t go to prison and were allowed to remain in their community – but one of the two male offenders ended up very similarly to this case?

    I suspect that having done something this horrible will stick in your mind, and I can well imagine that obsessing over what you have done to a small child could overlap into other unsavoury obsessions with children

  • “If a defendant is too young to begin to understand the proceedings it must in some way follow that their culpability for the offence is lessened.”

    Were they though. Sure the fine detail of procedure wouldn’t have been understood but when I was 10 I was capable of understanding in broad terms that it was wrong to kill someone and that people were deciding whether I’d done something wrong. There is also a tactical point of view that if you have a 10 year old defendant on a murder charge the chances of an acquittal are greater with a jury than in the youth justice system.

    If V&T had received say a 50 year tariff (comparable with Huntley and more than Roy Whiting) then they would still only have been 60 when eligible for release

    The real scandal of the Venables and Thompson case is that AIUI they were release comparatively because it was felt that if they moved from youth to adult detention it would undo the rehabilitation work that had been done up till then.

    Also as a human being I don’t want to believe that a child of 10 is so irredeemably evil that that can’t be rehabilitated. That is basically going down a route of “born pure evil” that is just too depressing to contemplate.

  • Andrea is quite right that there was a case in Norway in 1994 that drew some similarities. In this case two six year old boys were implicated in killing a five year old girl. The children retained anonymity, the case was not subject to criminal proceedings and the children remained in the community. The case was viewed as a collective tragedy. It has been reported that it is alleged that one of the boys involved who is now 21 is a troubled individual involved with mental health and drug services but I am not aware of any allegation of serious offending.

  • Also the newspapers are to blame for the cost of protecting these two because they incite people to take revenge and then they would probably condemn any action that was taken.

    How depressingly true. Tabloid headlines proclaim “Taxpayers money spent protecting monsters”, then if Venables’ identity were ever exposed and some vigilante took it upon themselves to beat him to death the next headline would read “Why didn’t politicians prevent this?”

    Not directly related to the Venables case, still relevant: I heard the Ipswich MP a few days ago proclaiming how “utterly wrong” it was that Ian Huntley should be able to make a compensation claim after getting his throat slit in jail. 

    The rights and wrongs of prisoner compensation aside, what he implied was that it was especially wrong for Huntley to lay a claim. He wouldn’t have been protesting in outrage if some random burglar or mugger claimed compensation for being attacked, but the nature of Huntley’s crime seems to put him in the “who cares if he gets his throat slit” category. 

    It’s as if a hefty chunk of society wants him dead, but doesn’t want to actually take responsibility for killing him – an approach more chilling even than an official death penalty IMO. Perhaps that’s partly why “Dexter” was such a big hit… 

    Somehow I’m not surprised that our society still produces people capable of horrific acts.

  • I have to say after reading Dan Roper’s piece that I was amazed this was posted by a serving screw and one who works in the PPU. He of all people should know that the prison system is not funded enough to work on rehabilitation. He should also know that courses which the government set their stall by for sex offenders ie SOTP et al are so underfunded that their is a waiting list in most jails where these are provided that offenders serving less than 3 years are unlikely to get on them and this is why we have so many IPP prisoners languishing in jail over tarriff. After all for indefinate sentenced prisoners such as lifers are required to do numerous courses to prove to the parole board that they are no longer a risk to the general public.

    Using a case such as the one he was commenting on to further a political carear is a big risk because many people out there want to see Venables hung for his crimes. The fact he served his sentence for the murder seems to be forgotten.

    As for saying no charges were forthcoming for the two allegations Venables was arrested for should have been followed with, the first the police found no evidence and were therefore unable to continue with a prosecution and the second followed usual procedures when cocaine is found in such small amounts that it can only be for personal use. A Caution. To receive a caution you have to admit the offence and thus Venables was not denied his right to justice because of his name.

    I hope Mr. Ropers bosses read his report because I would now be raising concerns with them over his position.

    Rob

  • Richard Hill 3rd Aug '10 - 11:38am

    I think we should always stand for doing the best we can to rehabilitate people with problems but we should avoid getting involved with specific cases. If a lot of people think about these things the way I think they do then certain cases we should avoid like the plague. After all we can not help anybody if we turn so many people against us that we are never in a position to help anyone.

  • Many thanks for the responses to this article – apologies for the delay in response but I have been away.

    Richard is quite right about the dangers of commenting on particular cases. We all well remember William Hague coming unstuck in his public comments re the Tony Martin in an attempt to be populist some ten years ago. This case is of course at the opposite end of the spectrum both in notoriety and the depth and breadth of negative public response. The article was not intended in any way to defend nor further condemn Mr Venables but to emphasise how high profile cases taken in isolation should not undermine commitment or confidence in rehabilitation. It is likely that there will be other cases that will appear to challenge the “rehabilitation revolution”.

    Rob is right that more could be acheived with better resourcing, I would submit not just in providing more programmes but also in one to one work tailored to particular offenders’ needs.

    It is unlikely that there will ever be many votes in standing up for rehabilitation but alongside public protection this has to remain at the centre of what we aim to acheive in the justice system.

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