Paul Vallely: He was a beacon for believers in reform. Now he is back in jail

Jon Venables's painstaking reintegration into society is threatened by recent events

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There are two ways of looking at the recall to prison of Jon Venables, the 27-year-old man who, as a boy of 10, committed one of the crimes which most shocked Britain in the 20th century. It may prove that attempts to rehabilitate such child killers are doomed to fail. Or it may show that the system the state has evolved to reform and monitor such individuals is working rather well.

Jon Venables, along with his playmate Robert Thompson, was the youngest person charged with murder in the UK in the modern era. Their crime haunted the nation most particularly because their abduction of the toddler James Bulger on 13 February 1993 – as he waited for his mother outside a butcher's shop in a Liverpool shopping centre – was captured on the closed-circuit television cameras of the Mothercare store next door.

The pair led the two-year-old by the hand out of the Bootle mall. They then dragged him through the town to a railway line, where they hit him with bricks and a massive metal bar, poured blue paint in his eyes and pushed batteries into his orifices. Finally they placed him on the tracks, where a train cut his little body in half.

Thompson and Venables were convicted of murder. They were detained indefinitely "at Her Majesty's pleasure". For the next eight years they were subjected to an intensive regime of education, psychotherapy, psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation. They were afforded the kind of structured and disciplined upbringing they would have been denied in the urban jungle of their Merseyside homes. When they were released in 2001 they were declared to be model cases of the way that even the most difficult of lives could be reformed.

So much so that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, then released them on licence – which means they are subject to be recalled to jail for the rest of their lives – saying that transferring them to the "corrosive atmosphere" of adult jails would undo all the good that had been done.

Venables, whose mother, Susan, had kept in constant touch with him, had become a keen football fan whose allegiance had transferred from Liverpool via Blackburn to Manchester United. Accompanied by social workers he had attended a dozen games in person and developed a strong identification with David Beckham in the wake of the vilification the footballer received after the 1998 World Cup – a feeling therapists encouraged as part of Venables's rehabilitation. By the time the 18-year-old was discharged he had lost all trace of his Scouse accent and had passed seven GCSEs and taken A-levels.

He and Thompson were granted life-long anonymity orders – only three have ever been issued in Britain, the other being to Maxine Carr, the former girlfriend of the Soham murderer Ian Huntley. They were freed with new names, new homes, new passports and new national insurance and social security documents.

The media were prohibited from revealing their new identities or where they lived. As a result, apart from a few desultory stories suggesting that he had applied to join the Army or become a born-again Christian, little has been heard of Jon Venables for the past nine years, which some might interpret as a success story in itself.

But now he is back in jail.

The news was a blow to prison officials who invested an enormous amount of energy into trying to reform the killers, said Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union, Napo, yesterday. "There would have been intense disappointment because a lot of work, a lot of energy, went into rehabilitation here."

Many jumped to the conclusion Venables must have committed a grave offence. "There must be a possibility of his new identity being exposed in prison and the inference must be it was a serious breach," opined the criminal barrister Michael Wolkind. "To go to all the trouble of building him a new identity and a new life, there must be a significant chance it was serious."

Others, like Tim Bateman, a visiting research fellow in criminology at the University of Bedfordshire, are not so sure. "If Venables had committed a new serious offence, it is likely that the announcement would have referred to his arrest or court appearance on that matter, rather than to him being recalled for breach of his licence conditions," said Mr Bateman who is also Youth Crime Policy Officer with the crime reduction charity Nacro.

A number of specific conditions were placed on Venables's behaviour when he was released. He and Thompson were banned from contacting one another or any member of the Bulger family. And they were forbidden from returning to Merseyside without written consent from their probation officers. But they would also be shackled with general conditions, like keeping in regular contact with their probation officer and notifying them of a change of address, employer, place of education or new girlfriend.

They would also have been told they could be recalled to prison at any time if they committed any offences, started abusing alcohol or drugs – or if their behaviour or attitudes deteriorated in a way which the probation service felt made them more of a danger to the public.

Rumours of what Venables may have done abound. One suggestion is that he has been using drugs. Another is that he has been involved in a violent incident after he accused a man of chatting up his girlfriend. A third is that someone rumbled his new identity, causing him to flee the home address at which the probation service had him registered.

Any of those would have been sufficient to cause him being recalled – to an adult jail. "The supervising probation officer does have discretion," said Mr Bateman. "Not every infringement will lead to recall, but where it does not, the probation officer would have to justify that decision. So it could be a comparatively minor infringement. If he had left his registered address that would be something which couldn't be ignored because knowing where he is a prime concern for the probation service."

Far from showing that the system of reform and rehabilitation has failed that would show it was working well, said Pam Hibbert, who was until recently assistant director of policy at the children's charity Barnados and before that was a manager at Red Bank secure unit, where Jon Venables served his sentence. "Given the notoriety of this case those who make the decision will err on the side of caution because of the adverse publicity which would follow if the media found out there had been a breach of parole conditions and he hadn't been recalled," she said. "They could not ignore any breach in such a high-profile case."

For the past decade key officials within the National Offender Management Service – which covers both the probation and prison services – have been under strict orders to "watch Venables and Thompson like hawks, even after nine years out," one insider said.

Officials do not have to wait until an offence is committed to recall someone to jail, according to Gareth Jones, the vice-chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers.

"If a probation officer thinks someone is likely to do something serious that is grounds enough to recall him to prison," said Mr Jones. "If someone like Venables did a runner because he thought his identity had been uncovered that means we wouldn't know where he is – and we can't protect the public if we don't know where the offender is."

Public protection in such situations over-rides the rights of the ex-offender. "What Venables's recall shows is that the system does work," Mr Jones added. "Someone who has been seen as, in some way, a danger to the public has been recalled. That should give the public confidence that those operating the systems of public protection are vigilant."

Last year 89 of the 1,300 individuals out on life-sentence licences were recalled to prison. In such cases, because the recall has been an administrative decision, it is subject to review by the Parole Board, which is required to meet within 28 days. One reason why politicians and officials at the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are saying so little about the Venables case is that they do not want to lay themselves open to the accusation of prejudicing that hearing.

Normally the outcome of such hearings is not made public, though an exception is likely in the Venables case.

It is very rare for the Parole Board to find against the recall. "But if Venables is found to have done something silly, or minor like being aggressive with his probation supervisor, he might only be inside for a month or two," one prison insider said.

The risk is that Venables's real identity could be uncovered while in jail. "His new identity is far more likely to be breached in prison than out," said Ms Hibbert, "which is the danger in him being recalled. And the prison service will have to be very careful with him because the risk is very high of vigilante action being taken against him given the strength of feeling that his case generates 17 years on."

How long Jon Venables remains in prison, and for what, may not become clear for some time.

Jon Venables: Licence conditions

* Keep in touch with his probation officer

* Permanently live at an agreed address

* Not leave the UK without approval

* Be well behaved and not commit any further criminal offence

* Not to visit Merseyside

* Not to contact any member of the Bulger family

* Not to approach Robert Thompson

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