One brutal exception does not prove the rule: With emotions running high after the murder of James Bulger, politicians are busy capitalising on what is a statistical rarity, says Frances Crook

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The Independent Online
THE TRAGIC killing of James Bulger has plunged the nation into mourning. Every parent shares the grief of his family and every newspaper, radio and television bulletin is dwelling on that sympathy. At the same time, politicians are scrambling on to a bandwagon with their own shallow and dishonest panacea for dealing with children, confusing those who commit serious offences and those who persistently offend. The child who kills is not the same as the habitual car thief and they should not be conflated.

In 1991 there were 12 juveniles convicted of murder or manslaughter. But numbers have always been too small to generalise from. For example, there were 10 in 1990 and 15 in 1989 and 22 in 1988. It is impossible to detect any long-term trend.

Assuming that the boys charged by Merseyside police are convicted of either murder or manslaughter, they would be sent to one of two Department of Health Youth Treatment Centres, Glenthorne in Birmingham or St Charles in Essex, where the standard of care seems to be at least adequate. Not surprisingly, these are extremely expensive, at pounds 1,680 per week per child. They offer state-of-the-art treatment, education and support for the few children who have committed extremely serious offences and who are themselves usually deeply damaged by abuse and violence. The institutions exist and do not need inventing. When convicted juveniles reach the age of 18 and still have part of their sentence to run, they are transferred to prison.

While a measure of media and public heart-rending over James Bulger's death is understandable, it is now getting out of proportion. It is also being confused with the discussion about persistent offenders.

Unlawful killing is still a relatively rare offence. In 1989 there were 539 offences recorded as homicide, of which 183 were cases of murder; 61 per cent of male victims and 80 per cent of female victims were acquainted with the suspect. Adult men are most at risk of being murdered; the elderly and teenagers are least likely to be killed. The child killed by a stranger is a rare phenomenon.

The politicians jousting for the moral high ground in the glare of media coverage ignore the cool facts. It is hardly credible that discussion about the moral malaise in the country should have focused on one case of a killing, however dreadful. The profound economic and social problems we face deserve a higher level of discussion. This is why we need to understand more, rather than glibly condemn. The people who are always condemned are inner-city children, black children, and children from poor families. Children of 12 and 13 are being made into scapegoats, even an enemy within.

Kenneth Clarke and Tony Blair seem to be competing with each other to see who is the tougher. But neither appears to know how many children they are talking about or who they are. It is worth noting that it is mostly the male politicians who are engaged in this competition. The women and mothers who have actually taken the burden of responsibility and time with their children, like Virginia Bottomley, represent a voice of reason.

Most people who commit a minor offence as a child or teenager just grow out of it. They do not repeat that part of experimenting with life. Over-reaction by adults and institutions would probably only make things worse. A very few children - and here the argument about how many is crucial - seem to get into a pattern of car stealing or burglary that does represent a hazard. There is no evidence that these repeat offenders graduate into killers, except in so far as the car they are driving may become a lethal weapon. The child who kills is in a completely different category and requires special treatment.

Even the repeat offenders should not be consigned to the penal dustbin advocated by our leading politicians. That will only make things worse.

There are schemes throughout the country that deal with child offenders by providing structured and demanding programmes which look at the offence they have committed. This may be the first time that such children have been forced to think about the consequences of their actions and put them in a social and moral context. It is hard work and it needs resources. It does not always work. It is not just the child who requires persistence. So do the supervising adult and the funding agency. Just like my children and yours, these children need lots of chances.

It is a paradox that the best schemes dealing with the most difficult and serious offenders have existed for a decade in the Conservative shire counties and not in the Labour-controlled inner cities where they are most needed. The Howard League has been conducting an investigation into the best schemes that manage teenage offenders and we have found very few in the inner cities.

As a society we must accept the idea that institutions for children fail them and us and should be used only as a last resort. There are already 297 secure places in 30 local authority units. These are in addition to the Department of Health facilities for serious and violent offenders, which provide 70 places. This total would be quite sufficient for the children that need them. The difficulty is that half the children are locked up because of civil proceedings, on care orders, not because they have committed any offence.

If we build new penal preparatory schools to deal with the so-called small hard core of persistent offenders we will only be building problems for the future and severing these children's already fragile roots in their community. No one can guarantee a crime-free society and it may be that we just have to come to terms with a certain amount of crime, like environmental pollution. The point is not to make it worse.

Kenneth Clarke is morally wrong to advocate using taxpayers' money to add to the penal institutions for children. Tony Blair is morally wrong to blame children for crime. The two of them arguing about whose penal institution is bigger gets us nowhere.

The author is director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.