Bulger killers should not have been prosecuted, says children's commissioner

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The Independent Online

The killers of James Bulger should not have been prosecuted for his murder because children under the age of 12 who commit crimes are too young to understand the full consequences of their actions, the Children's Commissioner for England said today.

Maggie Atkinson, who was appointed to the post last autumn, said under 12s should not be prosecuted for any crime and called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 12 years old.

Dr Atkinson told The Times that a civilised society should recognise that children who commit offences should be treated differently from adult criminals.

Her comments come after James' mother Denise Fergus met Justice Secretary Jack Straw this week to discuss the return to custody of her two-year-old son's killer Jon Venables.

Reports claimed Venables is being investigated over allegations of child pornography, but Mr Straw refused to confirm the details of why he was returned to prison.

Dr Atkinson said politicians should put the needs of children first and not allow themselves to be so influenced by the views of victims' relatives.

"The 'we are too worried about the parents issue' is something that runs like a thread through a number of cases. My constant song is 'listen to the children and young people'."

Calling for a change in the law, she said even the most "hardened" of youngsters who have committed serious crimes were "not beyond being frightened".

"The age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10 - that's too low, it should certainly be moved up to 12; in some European countries it is 14," she said.

"In terms of knowing what the full consequences of your actions are, you are into older childhood or adolescence."

She continued: "In most Western European nations they have a completely different way of intervening with youngsters who have committed crime. Most of their approaches are much more therapeutic, much more family and community based, much more about reparation than simply locking somebody up."

Dr Atkinson said the James Bulger killing was a "dreadful thing", and Venables and Robert Thompson, who were 10 in 1993 when they were charged with the toddler's murder, needed to be in a contained environment like a youth justice facility and given programmes to help them turn their lives around.

Venables' breaking of the terms of his "life licence" which saw him recalled to custody should actually help to force a debate on the effectiveness of the current system, she told the newspaper.

She said: "Youngsters are usually tried in a youth court, (Thompson and Venables) were tried in an adult court. What they did was exceptionally unpleasant and the fact that a little boy ended up dead is not something the nation can easily forget. But they shouldn't have been tried in an adult court because they were still children."

A Ministry of Justice spokesman responded today: "We are committed to tackling crime, and in particular intervening early with young people to prevent crime and antisocial behaviour.

"We believe that children aged 10 and over can differentiate between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing. We do not intend to raise the age of criminal responsibility. It is not in the interests of justice, of victims, or the young people themselves, to prevent serious offending being challenged.

"Custody for under-18s is always a last resort and is only used for the most serious, persistent and violent offenders.

"Only 3 per cent of young offenders who admit or are convicted of an offence receive a custodial sentence and the Government has expanded the range and intensity of community sentences available for young people, as an alternative to detention."

Atkinson later issued a statement saying: "I wish to be clear and to put into context my views on such terrible atrocities.

"Some children and young people do commit terrible crimes and are a danger to themselves and to others. It is right, therefore, that these children are contained in secure settings as in the case of James Bulger's killers and more recently the horrific case in Edlington.

"I empathise with the pain and anguish felt by all the families of the victims involved.

"Children who carry out such atrocities and other serious offences need to understand the severity of their actions. They should undertake intense programmes appropriate to their age in secure facilities where they are helped to make positive and lasting changes to their behaviour.

"The age of criminal responsibility in England is one the lowest in Europe. The statistics show that we are in danger of criminalising too many children and young people by locking them up for committing far less serious crimes."