Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Will we never learn about child crime?

I fear the Michael Howard line on the value of prison will have gathered more converts last week. The Bulger case is one of the most emotive in recent criminal history
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The Independent Online

One of the killers of Jamie Bulger, Jon Venables, has been convicted of downloading images of sadistic child rapes and is in prison again, a few years after he was released, presumably because experts believed he was "cured" and no longer a threat to the public. Jamie's mother is understandably distraught and wishes the murderer the worst of times and no respite. So too would other mothers in her place.

The view from some quarters is predictable. Venables is back where he belongs, banged up with other scum like him, only costing the taxpayer thousands of pounds as the state gives him yet another protective makeover. Informers tell the populist press that Venables is on suicide watch and has two bodyguards. "He's a nightmare ... takes up so much time and resources, it's unbelievable." Hang him, say our maddened millions. In Iran, the stringent law enforcers would have done just that, once he had reached puberty proper, strung him up in public. I doubt whether our most vociferous hardliners would have the stomach for such stark, punitive displays.

We did once do the same. In his book about the Bulger case, David James Smith records previous child murderers including 14-year-old John Bell, hanged in 1831, the last British minor ever to go to the gallows. Children were still sent off to Australia, imprisoned, flogged, and worse. In the 1930s, an old dormant concept of doli incapax was activated and embedded in the courts – that young minds do not have the capability to understand unlawful behaviour. That assumption is regularly questioned now as more and more youngsters – some only seven or eight– carry out violent and illegal acts. Today, the age of criminal responsibility in Britain is lower than in China and Algeria.

Thompson and Venables were tried in an adult court and were barely able to look over the witness box. The judge, Mr Justice Morland, pronounced that the boys had committed "an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity" – arguably the most irresponsible statement ever to come from the mouth of a judge. Worse than Brady and Hindley? The European court and Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, ensured leniency when it came to sentencing. Now Venables has "proved" that pity and structured rehabilitation have no effect on villains like him.

This conviction arrives at a critical moment. The coalition Government is in the middle of an identity crisis on law and order, trying to please both the castigatory faction – led by Michael Howard and the alliance of professionals that, with the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, believes in rehabilitation. I fear the Howard line will have gathered more converts over the last week. The Bulger case is one of the most emotive in recent criminal history and will resurrect memories for years to come.

In 1993, when he was only 10, Venables roamed around a mall in Bootle with his mate Robert Thompson. Bored and excitable, they committed small crimes, then gently lured away a child from his briefly distracted mother, took his wee hand and escorted him to some railway tracks where they tortured and killed him. The CCTV image of the little one trustfully walking away with the big boys imprinted itself forever on our minds.

Ian McEwen expressed the existential despair perfectly, saying: "The violent child is the most potent image of violated innocence. If we humankind are capable of this, perhaps we are beyond redemption." Some crimes can take away all our props, the structures we build to give sense and meaning to life. The boy killers are the forever unforgiven because they shook up the collective Western notions of morality, family, justice, motivation, culpability, sexuality and much else. They also exposed the festering and unattended swamps in our rich and self-regarding nation.

Thompson and Venables came from unstable family units rife with violence, parental depression, substance abuse, sensory overload, high-volume emotions, unpredictability, little delicacy and thoughtfulness. Thompson's mum was an alcoholic, had seven kids who ceaselessly battered and frightened each other. Venables's mum was depressed and ultra-controlling. She hit him and he was afraid of displeasing her. He was a vulnerable child. On that fateful day, he had a note asking his teacher to let him look after the school gerbils for the holidays. He had been self-harming, rocking and moaning in class. During police questioning, he cried like a baby and sat on his mum's lap seeking unconditional love. Whether she knew what that word meant is doubtful.

The tougher-looking Thompson collected troll dolls (which he stole from a shop the day of the killing) and sucked his thumb, sometimes sucking his younger brother's too. His mum was savagely beaten by her dad, then her husband. The sins and sorrows of the parents pass down.

Dr Sue Bailey, a consultant adolescent psychiatrist, has studied a large cohort of Britain's most violent children. She found a strong correlation between the behaviour and negative childhood experiences. Research carried out on Romanian orphans in 1990 found that a lack of tenderness and care in a child's early years leaves a "black hole" in the brain. Now the foreman of the jury in the Bulger trial accepts they should have seen that the boys needed urgent psychological and social help. If their families had been targeted earlier, either by having their children taken into foster care, or obliged to accept intensive therapeutic work, Jamie Bulger would be a young man today.

My brother-in-law, Mick Millman, a social worker who tragically died last month, successfully got seriously dysfunctional families in the Rhonda Valley to recognise their failures and develop better parenting skills. He used to say to me that he knew by the age of two which child would end up in prison and that one could change that destiny for kids who never asked to be born to parents who couldn't handle a doll without breaking it. Bloodlusting boy soldiers in Rwanda and Uganda are being carefully brought back from that madness. In Scandinavia, child killers are quietly and, with enormous forbearance, reintegrated into society. Research in the US shows that high-quality early care can enhance economic potential, confidence and stregnth. Those who don't get that drown, taking others down with them.

On the bus last week, a young mum was on her mobile phone for 40 minutes. Her toddler daughter was in a pushchair and a five-year-old boy was sitting next to me, in a thick coat with a hood which he kept on, on a burning hot day. She never spoke to either child. Neither child uttered a sound, and seemed drugged or scared. His hood fell off and he scratched his head violently, drawing blood. She thumped him. Now he inflicts pain on himself, later perhaps to his sister, to a stranger. How many such kids are there? Do we even know?

Politicians hope the rich will hand over cash to rescue the mad, bad and dangerous. Like hell they will. Can you see, say, PricewaterhouseCoopers schemes to bring on toddlers from homes like those of Venables and Thompson, free T-shirts included? No way. Slash state funds in this area and you raise more young criminals. And that, for sure, will lead to even more criminalising of the young. So much easier and cheaper that than dealing with the underlying causes.