The sentence of detention 'at Her Majesty's pleasure' is the only one available for juveniles convicted of murder. In effect, it means the same as a life sentence in adult courts and gives the authorities leeway to free the offender only when they consider them suitable for release, a process often criticised by penal reformers.
But even if freed, Thompson and Venables will remain on 'life licence' - and subject to recall to prison at any point - for the rest of their lives. That can be revoked only if they can convince the authorities they will never offend again.
The date of their release will depend on the judge's secret sentence recommendation to the Home Office - probably in the region of 25 years - their record in custody, and the opinions of the battery of specialists who will want to study their minds and behaviour.
Thompson and Venables are the youngest members of the small group of the country's most dangerous young offenders, all convicted under Section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act of murder, rape, robbery or arson. Their lives will be closely monitored.
Today, they will be back in the two local authority secure units where they have been kept since their first detention; within three months, they will be allocated to similar units able to deal with their long-term care. The units are among 30 around the country which during the 1970s replaced approved residential schools and remand homes, with an emphasis on child care rather than custody.
Bodies such as the Police Federation have attacked 'soft' regimes, saying there is a vacuum between child care and prison custody which is responsible for the increase in juvenile crime. About 300 youngsters, including 85 Section 53 offenders, are housed in the units, some of which are attached to 'open' community children's homes. Only four apart from Thompson and Venables are serving life sentences.
The units are closer to schools with locks than prisons, with daytime lessons from local authority teachers and sport and recreation classes; the boys will be allocated to units specialising in long-term care as close to their homes as possible.
Although the atmosphere inside the units is relaxed, they are highly security conscious. Children are kept behind high walls and locked into their rooms at night. Privileges are earned. Depending on the attitude of individual units, Thompson and Venables are likely to be allowed to wear their own clothes and hairstyles; only 'exaggerated' styles are banned.
Caring for the two will cost the taxpayer a fortune: the annual average cost of one child in a secure unit is almost pounds 90,000; youth treatment centres are even more expensive.
Department of Health and Home Office officials will monitor their progress; if, when they reach 16, they are disruptive or have tried to escape, they are likely to be moved into one of the two high-security Youth Treatment Centres, in Birmingham and Brentwood. Otherwise they will remain in the secure units and at about 18 will go to young offender institutions and, eventually, to adult prisons.
As the boys started their sentences last night, Venables' mother, Susan, said: 'Obviously he's very upset and he wants to come home.
'I just say, 'Well, you can't. We are still there for you. We can try and visit you as much as possible and try and support you in that way. But you just can't come home, because of what's happened.' '
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