They were able to return to and participate in society. But those aged 16 and 17 in both Britain and Ireland are often not so lucky
THE IMAGE lingers. Although we were still consumed by the Northern Troubles, who can forget the CCTV pictures of tiny Liverpool toddler James (Jamie) Bulger holding the hand of a much older boy? Their backs were turned to us, but it is what the hands expressed that matters: a universal message of vulnerability giving itself to responsibility. It is the way things should be.
But all was not as it should have been that February day in 1993. Two-year-old Jamie and his mother were in a butcher’s shop in a deprived part of that most Irish of English cities.
One minute Jamie was standing beside his mum in the shop. The next he had wandered off. Within seconds his mother realised he had vanished and began frantically searching for him, but he was being led to a railway line by 10-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson to be horrifically mutilated and killed.
The crime touched very raw nerves. The pictures of the two boys, themselves still only children, taking the two-year-old filled us with special fear. It could have been any two-year-old outside any butcher’s shop in any town in these islands.
William Golding’s fictional dystopia of juvenile savagery in Lord of the Flies lies all around us. It is only by grace that no crime quite so disturbing has been committed in Ireland for the same grim social conditions certainly exist in parts of our cities and the capacity for wickedness respects no national boundaries.
Nobody who watched the film Boy A on Channel 4 last week or at the Cork Film Festival, written and directed by the Irish team behind the Colin Farrell film Intermission could have failed to recall the grainy tape that prefigured little Jamie’s murder. A gripping thriller, it raised big questions, not least, do we really believe in redemption?
When we first met Boy A — later “Jack” — it was clear that he was somebody trying to leave the past behind him. Only once he’d had the chance to come across as a sympathetic character did a series of increasingly ominous flashbacks reveal his past. When he was 10, he and a friend had murdered a girl of about the same age beside a railway line.
Branded in court as “evil”, the two boys had become national hate figures. Despite the differences in the victim, the parallels with Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were inescapable. Now 24 and apparently rehabilitated, Jack was being given a fresh start. The previously unknown lead actor Andrew Garfield did a superb job of capturing Jack’s tangled emotions: excitement, terror and guilt, not to mention bewilderment with the real modern world.
The film was equally good on the sheer practical difficulties Jack faced. During his first night out with his work colleagues, he couldn’t relax in case he got drunk and spilled the beans. When he and a work colleague fell in love, he desperately wanted to tell her who he was — but was advised he never could. In the meantime, the press were offering rewards to anybody who could help trace him.
Boy A firmly suggested that while we’re happy enough to accept the idea in the abstract, in real life we seem curiously unable to accept somebody can genuinely change. Hence, the British tabloids have run any number of lurid tales about Venables and Thompson when the truth is that they are models of what a progressive juvenile justice system can — but rarely does — achieve.
According to the Dáil public accounts committee, anything from €300,000 to €500,000 is spent to keep just one young offender in Ireland’s dilapidated centres for youth detention for one year — but most go on to reoffend.
St Patrick’s Institution in Dublin appears to be particularly ineffectual.
Some say locking up youngsters is not the answer to teenagers who kill: simply, it won’t make families any less bereaved and it won’t prevent similar episodes occurring in the future either because it stops those particular young people who are locked up only for as long as they stay locked up. Others would say that is at least something and society cannot take all the blame for what individuals do. Inequalities do not explain everything.
Still, one of the most terrifying sights possible for a law-abiding citizen is the release of youngsters from young offenders’ institutes. Many have every intention of returning to their criminality, believing it to be indicative of independence of spirit, bravery and enterprise. Crime is to them what athletic prowess or academic success is to others.
The issues then are not easy; the solutions not clear-cut. In the Bulger case, the English Lord Chief Justice ruled that Venables and Thompson be released rather than transferred to a young offenders’ institution. Unsurprisingly, James’s parents and the tabloids saw the ruling as one of heartless leniency, but there was no reason to believe they were, any longer, dangerous young men or that continued imprisonment would act as any kind of deterrent.
On the contrary, as a result of the special attention they received in local authority secure units, they constituted less of a danger to society than many of their former peer group. Further, while even quite young children know that killing is wrong, it is the prospect of punishment in general that deters them, not the length of sentence. Venables and Thompson had already lost their childhoods.
Children do not kill if they think they will get five years and refrain from doing so because they will get 10. Detention centres are the resort of hardened criminals. No doubt they have been hardened young, but there are very few youths sent to such institutes who have not already committed many offences and been given many warnings. This was not the case with the Bulger killers.
NEVERTHELESS, few believe that retribution is not an important part of justice, even if it is not fashionable to say so. Who can doubt the devastating effect of some of the trifling sentences handed down to young criminals with no intention of following the straight-and-narrow?
Retribution is only appropriate, however, in some cases, not in that of young teens with otherwise blameless records. In Ireland, 10- and 11-year-old offenders are put in care, not detained as in England. Detention schools deal with children from the age of 12 to 16. St Patrick’s, with its unenviable reputation, takes on the slightly older category. There they are locked up almost all day long; many transcend the boredom on a cocktail of recreational drugs.
Venables and Thompson — and the fictional Jack — were lucky in the sense that the state intervened when they were at a very young age. They were able to return to and participate in society. But those aged 16 and 17 in both Britain and Ireland are often not so lucky. Until we view centres of detention as more — much, much more — than just containers for deprived and disadvantaged, not to mention wicked, young men, we will never escape the depressing cycle of recidivism.
If we do believe in redemption, more, smaller secure facilities with an individualised rehabilitation regime, while not the cheapest option, might offer a degree of hope.