Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

British Parties Unite on Stricter Sentencing Outcry over the Murder of a Toddler Has Spurred Politicians to Toughen Juvenile Punishment, Prompting Debate over How Best to Cut Crime Rate

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

British Parties Unite on Stricter Sentencing Outcry over the Murder of a Toddler Has Spurred Politicians to Toughen Juvenile Punishment, Prompting Debate over How Best to Cut Crime Rate

Article excerpt

BRITAIN'S ruling and opposition political parties, traditionally at odds on law-and-order issues, have moved onto common ground in their determination to find ways of curbing and punishing juvenile crime in the country's inner cities.

They have been jolted to consensus by popular revulsion at the senseless murder of a toddler. Two 10-year-old boys have been charged with abducting 2-year-old James Bulger from a Liverpool supermarket, where he was shopping with his mother, and killing him before leaving his body on a railroad track.

With the murder sending what the Liverpool police officer in charge of the case called a "shockwave of horror" through the nation, the Conservative government and its Labour Party opponents swiftly began producing policies which, if implemented, will mean harsher punishments for hard-core juvenile criminals, including secure detention centers for persistent offenders under the age of 15.

A week after the Bulger murder Prime Minister John Major set the tone in a newspaper interview by calling for "a crusade" against crime.

"Society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less," Mr. Major told The Mail on Sunday newspaper. Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke immediately called a meeting of advisers to draw up new measures to punish persistent juvenile offenders.

But before Mr. Clarke could produce a detailed plan, Tony Blair, his Labour Party "shadow," went public with a call for building more lockups for persistent youthful offenders and a new attempt to understand the reasons for juvenile crime. "We need to tackle this problem in a concerted way; tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime," Mr. Blair said. He later sent Clarke a copy of his policy document, urging him to use it as the basis of the government's approach to juvenile crime.

Under current laws, only youths aged 15 or older can be sentenced to secure detention. Clarke and Blair have both indicated that they want the age limit reduced. Clarke wants the limit dropped to 12, but Blair has said that is too young for a youth to be placed in secure detention.

Clarke said social workers had to accept that current methods were failing to cope with juvenile crime. "There is a lack of purpose and a loss of values among many of our young people," he added. Echoing him, Blair called for closer liaison between agencies dealing with truancy, drug abuse, employment training, and homelessness.

The murder of James Bulger is an extreme case of juvenile violence, but it has come in the wake of huge publicity given to a wave of car thefts and other types of youthful crime.

A Home Office survey last year showed that most young offenders were from disadvantaged backgrounds, commonly with unemployed parents and broken homes. Eleven out of a sample of 100 teenage car thieves said their parents were unconcerned about their crimes. …

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