FEW CRIMES this century roused such passion as the horrible killing of little James Bulger. But the decision from the European Court over the trial and sentence was right. Whatever else these two boys were, they were still children. They deserved to be locked up but not to be treated as if they were adults. Their crime was appalling but they should not be compared with the likes of Ian Brady or, for example, the brutal stepfather who this week was found guilty of torturing a four-year-old to death. We do not agree with those who say that children should not face the criminal law. The European Court agreed that it was right for Venables and Thompson to be convicted of murder. But how they are treated by the legal system, what sort of court they face and the length of sentence should all be suitable for a child, not an adult. James Bulger's parents must live with what Venables and Thompson did. But so must they. We do not ask for compassion for them. That would be too much. But we do ask that they and other children who commit terrible crimes are still treated as children.
THE BOYS committed the dreadful crime of which they were convicted. We have already argued that the time must be close when they are considered for release, having already served almost half their lifetimes in custody. We suggest that Britain should accept today's verdict of the European Court as far as it goes. But it would be cause for genuine public outrage if the 1993 guilty finding of Preston Crown Court was undone. We should be prepared to acknowledge faults in the Preston court procedure, and take care not to repeat them. But any thought of now adjudging the killers "innocent" - worse still, of compensating them - would be a wide, wide bridge too far for the British people
THE RULING is clear. Children should not be subjected to adult criminal court procedures. Mr Straw must end the two-tier juvenile justice system. Second, he must reduce Mr Howard's 15-year tariff to the 10 years set by the Lord Chief Justice. Third, he must withdraw the home secretary from the parole procedure, leaving it to the parole board to decide when serious juvenile offenders should be released. All this is only a start. The whole juvenile justice system is in a mess. He needs to freeze the new children's prisons, end the shameful remands of juveniles to adult prisons and listen to his Prisons Inspector's condemnation of young offenders' institutions.
The Daily Telegraph
THE HOME Secretary's existing powers to set tariffs do not compromise the impartiality of the courts - as European judges have acknowledged in previous cases concerning adults. There is no logic, then, in ruling that it violates children's rights. Public outrage may be unattractive, and children will merit different treatment from adults in some matters, but public revulsion from extraordinarily wicked crimes is still entitled to expression in sentencing. Jack Straw is better placed to judge that entirely proper outrage than a gaggle of lawyers in Strasbourg.
AT THE Commission of Human Rights earlier this year, a dissenting minority said that "it was impossible and unrealistic" to suggest that a fair hearing required the accused to feel at ease or fully in command of the legal complexities, for if that were so, whole groups of people could never be tried. Although liberal legal opinion is now moving towards more informal procedures for children, that caveat has the ring of common sense. Public trials, as the court acknowledged, are held to safeguard the rights of adults; is it any less important that children be seen to be accorded the highest standards of justice, or that the evidence against them be in the public domain? By all means leave off the legal wigs; but any British government should think long and hard before deciding that secret trials for children advance the cause of justice.
WHAT MATTERS now is that when the time to review Venables' and Thompson's sentence approaches, the decision to free them should be taken on only two grounds: the risk to the community and whether, according to law, they have been properly punished for their crimes. Naming them already makes their return to the community difficult. Keeping them locked up for ever will only further discredit the handling of this case. And James Bulger's memory deserves more than to become a symbol for the failure of British justice.
THIS PAPER has no argument with those who hope that, having paid the price for the terrible crime of which they were undoubtedly guilty, Thompson and Venables will be released and rehabilitated. It would be wrong for a civilised society to risk their brutalisation behind bars as a result of a crime they committed when so young. What is at issue here is an outside court interfering in long-standing judicial and political procedures that have been democratically established and accepted by the British people.Reuse content