Lawyers for Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, aged 10 when they killed two-year- old James, say Mr Howard's prison 'tariff', five years more than judges' recommendations, could be overturned by judicial review. Thompson and Venables have already begun an appeal to the European Court, saying their rights have been infringed by the English legal system, which gives a politician the right to set prison terms.
The Bulger family, which campaigned for the boys to serve life, said they did not consider the sentence sufficient. Sean Sexton, their lawyer, said James's mother, Denise, was relieved the sentence meant the boys would do some 'proper jail time' rather than serve their entire sentences in secure units or youth custody. The Bulgers said they would renew their campaign when the boys came up for parole in 2009. Mr Howard has made it clear that public opinion will affect any decision to release the boys after the minimum term.
The boys were convicted last November of abducting James and murdering him on a railway embankment in Liverpool. Both denied the charges.
Mr Howard set a tariff - the minimum detention period needed to satisfy requirements of retribution and deterrence - which exceeded recommendations by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice who advised eight and 10 years respectively.
A Home Office statement said the judges' views were considered by Mr Howard, who increased the sentence because of the special circumstances and the need to maintain confidence in the justice system. Mr Howard made it clear the strength of public feeling had effected the length of the sentence.
His reasons for imposing a higher tariff were criticised as 'flimsy' by the team advising Thompson and Venables. 'Is Mr Howard saying the judges omitted to consider the circumstances of the crime? Their recommendations were based on the need for retribution and deterrence,' said one lawyer. 'This decision is meant to be private. The announcement by the Home Office lends itself to the inference that it was a political decision. If so, it would reinforce an appeal under the European Convention of Human Rights claiming that the executive, not the judiciary, has done the sentencing.'
The 15-year sentence means Thompson and Venables, currently held in separate secure units, are expected to serve four years in a maximum security prison, even if the psychiatric care they are receiving is successful.
The European Court last month agreed to consider an appeal from two Britons, convicted of murder at the ages of 15 and 16. They have challenged Mr Howard's right to sentence juveniles to mandatory life terms as if they were adult. Thompson and Venables are in the category of mandatory life prisoners.
'There is every prospect Thompson and Venables could be brought up in the juvenile prison system in conditions more caring than they encountered on the streets of Liverpool,' the lawyer said. 'Mr Howard intends they should then be thrown in jail in the company of terrorists, drug barons, professional killers and sex offenders.'
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