SHOULD JAMES'S KILLERS BE RELEASED SOON? YES; YES: Research Director at Crime-Reduction Charity Nacro and a Member of the Youth Justice Board

Article excerpt

HOW to deal fairly with young children who commit the gravest crimes presents problems in all societies.

It involves balancing the interests of the victim, the community and the offender and is ultimately a moral exercise which gives rise to strong emotions on every side.

If the shocking murder of James Bulger had taken place a few months earlier, neither Jon Venables nor Robert Thompson could have been charged with any criminal offence at all. There would have been no crown court trial, no life sentence and no minimum period of detention set by judges, Home Secretaries, the European court or anyone else.

But because the two boys were just over the age of criminal responsibility, the long and controversial process was set in train which ended yesterday.

It is the very young age at which Jon and Robert committed the horrific crime that has raised such difficult dilemmas. Nobody accepts that children are as responsible for their actions as adults are.

Their minds, their morals and ability to control their impulses are still developing. That is why we do not allow them to drink, smoke, have sex or vote and why we compel them to attend school.

The capacity children have to develop and change is reflected in the system we have for dealing with youngsters who behave badly.

Most countries do not put children in front of criminal courts however heinous their crime until they are 12, 14 or even 16. Under those ages criminal behaviour is dealt with by measures designed solely with the welfare of the youngster in mind.

In the most serious cases this can involve living in a closed institution for a time if the public are at risk. The purpose is not punishment, however, but helping children grow into law-abiding adults. Education, treatment and the resolution of underlying problems is the hallmark of this approach.

In our system, children over 10 are punished but the nature and extent of that punishment reflects the special status and needs of children.

The Lord Chief Justice yesterday decided that eight years was the right period Venables and Thompson should serve as punishment. This is the same period that the trial judge, having heard all of the deeply disturbing evidence, recommended at the end of the original trial in 1994. …