Lord Woolf is right to set James Bulger's killers free

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The proper role of politicians in the criminal justice system is not to decide individual sentences but to provide the legal framework in which judges can pass sentence. It was right that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, and not the Home Secretary, should have decided the minimum sentence to be served by the killers of James Bulger. And he was right here to decide that this minimum should be reduced, both from the 15 years unlawfully set by the former Home Secretary Michael Howard, and from the 10 years set by the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor.

The proper role of politicians in the criminal justice system is not to decide individual sentences but to provide the legal framework in which judges can pass sentence. It was right that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, and not the Home Secretary, should have decided the minimum sentence to be served by the killers of James Bulger. And he was right here to decide that this minimum should be reduced, both from the 15 years unlawfully set by the former Home Secretary Michael Howard, and from the 10 years set by the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor.

One reason Lord Woolf gave for the reduction to seven and a half years was that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables had done everything open to them to redeem themselves, which rightly gives some weight to the aim of rehabilitation in the penal system.

What was unsatisfactory about yesterday's decision, however, was another of Lord Woolf's reasons for reducing the minimum sentence. He said that it would not be in the public's interest for the two murderers to be transferred to an adult institution, which is what would happen next year when they turn 18. This would destroy the good work put into their rehabilitation, not to mention, as the Lord Chief Justice bluntly put it, the "great deal of money" that society had "invested" in their upbringing.

He is quite right that the transfer from local authority secure unit to a Young Offenders Institution, at this stage in their development, would increase the risk of their becoming adult criminals, fit only to be locked up for the rest of their lives. If, instead, they are released on licence next year, there is at least a chance that they could make some kind of contribution to society as adults able to come to terms with their damaged childhoods.

Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that, if 10 years were the right sentence in theory (and Lord Woolf said that he agreed with his predecessor when he set it), it should be cut short simply because there is no suitable institution which could carry on the attempt to recover some kind of humanity from the wreckage.

As Jack Straw weathers the inevitable storm over Lord Woolf's decision, he should consider the following paradox. Until politicians provide the courts with more penal institutions which emphasise rehabilitation, especially for child offenders, rather than the present social dustbins doubling as colleges of crime, they will continue to bear the brunt of public anger over "lenient" sentences.

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