Bulger killers must serve time in adult jails: Reformers say 15-year minimum will hinder boys' rehabilitation. Mary Braid reports

THE 15-year minimum sentence given to the two boys who killed James Bulger was far in excess of judicial recommendations but for James's mother, Denise, it was not enough.

Mrs Bulger's only consolation was that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both 11, would, after six years in separate local authority secure units, end up in adult prison doing 'proper jail time'.

Her opinion is almost certainly shared by the half a million people who supported the family's campaign for the boys - aged 10 when they murdered two-year-old James - to be jailed for life. There were reportedly only 33 pleas for leniency. The Home Office confirmed yesterday that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, took public feeling into account when reaching the decision. But psychologists and prison professionals yesterday criticised Mr Howard's unusual decision to increase the recommended term.

'I think the Home Secretary is essentially satisfying public opinion,' said Dr Anthony Storr, clinical psychiatrist and Emeritus Fellow of Green College, Oxford.

'It's ridiculous to set a limit of 15 years. No one knows how these boys are going to develop or when they will be fit to rejoin the human race . . That is a future judgement for those who look after them. These children have a better chance than adult murderers of rehabilitation. The sad thing is that the long sentence means they will spend time in an adult prison where so much of the good which might be done while they are in secure units will be lost.'

Venables and Thompson have already spent eight months in secure units. They are the youngest murderers among 270 serious offenders under 17 housed in 28 units nationwide. Child murderers are extremely rare but the boys will mix with the country's most disturbed children, including arsonists and rapists. The unit regime is a combination of psychological counselling and education, where contact with their family could be less than an hour a week.

Angus MacKay, chairman of the Secure Unit Network, is principal officer of the Orchard Lodge unit in London. Having worked with teenage murderers, he regrets that most serve their last years in adult jails. 'In secure units we accept that the children are themselves victims. But we also have to get them to accept the reality that they, in the end, are responsible for their actions.

'You cannot underestimate the trauma suffered by young people who kill . . . Remorse is not a powerful enough word to describe their feelings. Our regime is essentially treatment-orientated but even the best prisons are punishment-orientated. If the aim is to make these boys fit into society again, such sentences make no sense.'

Peter Wilson, of the child mental health charity Young Minds, said he feared the switch to adult prison would come just when Venables and Thompson might be becoming more self-aware and realise the full horror of their crime. In prison they would get no real counselling.

'The sentence has to be based on rehabilitation. If it is simple vengeance we might as well close the door and throw away the key.'

Paul Cavadino, of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, yesterday said the Home Secretary should relinquish his power to set minimum terms in mandatory life sentences and to decide thereafter when someone should be released.

'The sentence is a matter for the judge who hears all the evidence from both sides,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)