Saturday, 13 March 2010

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.

She also said civilised society should recognise that children who commit offences needed to be treated differently from adult criminals. Dr Atkinson said James Bulger's killers should have taken "programmes" to turn their lives around and not been jailed.

Obviously, the attraction of the Venables situation is wearing thin quicker than I anticipated; I had expected tree-huggers and the elf people to get around to this a bit later than they have. Luckily, I can remove my 'Mr. Angry' hat as the Justice department has rejected the idea and things will stay as they are. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "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". But, like a genie released from the bottle, the pronouncements of the Commissioner will be around for some while yet. Whilst I still have a lingering doubt as to the sanity of that good lady, I just wonder where she has been during the recent spate of incidents involving young children as victims and where the age of the offenders and the failing agency workers is not in dispute.

Other than Scotland, where the criminal responsibility bar of eight years is under review to be raised to 12 years, we have almost the lowest age for initiating criminal action against juveniles. Switzerland, Nigerian and South Africa set the age at seven years old whilst Belgium and most of America are the top of the league with the age of 18. I do not recognise the concept that physical age is what determines the actions of human beings. Quite clearly, there are some very savage and ferocious young persons. The one who comes immediately to mind is Mary Bell who was tried in 1968 with the murder (reduced to manslaughter) of two youngsters. She was ten years old at the time of the first murder and 11 when she carried out her second offence.

I can understand the dichotomy between between punishment as retribution and re-education programmes such as the ones Dr Atkinson may have had in mind. I think age is too imprecise a consideration. I have chosen Bell because she presents just about the worst example of how nurture can determine personality. For those who do not 'do' links, here is an abstract from the Wiki site:
Bell's mother Betty (born McCrickett) was a prostitute who was often absent from the family home, travelling to Glasgow to work. Mary (nicknamed May) was her first child, born when Betty was 17 years old. It is not known who Mary's biological father was; for most of her life she believed it to be Billy Bell, an habitual criminal later arrested for armed robbery who had married Betty some time after Mary was born. Independent accounts from family members suggest strongly that Betty had attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental more than once during the first few years of her life. Mary herself says she was subject to repeated sexual abuse, her mother forcing her from the age of four to engage in sex acts with men.

On May 25, 1968, the day before her 11th birthday, Mary Flora Bell strangled four year old Martin Brown. She was believed to have committed this crime alone. Between that time and the second killing, she and her friend Norma Joyce Bell (no relation), age thirteen, broke into and vandalised a nursery in Scotswood, leaving notes that claimed responsibility for the Brown killing. The Newcastle police dismissed this incident as a prank.

On 31 July 1968, the two took part in the death, again by strangulation, of three-year-old Brian Howe. Police reports concluded that Mary Bell had gone back after killing him to carve an "N" into his stomach with a razor; this was then changed using the same razor but with a different hand from an "M". Mary Bell also used a pair of scissors to cut off bits of Brian Howe's hair and to mutilate his genitals. As the girls were so young and their testimonies contradicted each other, what happened has never been entirely clear. Martin Brown's death was initially ruled an accident as there was no evidence of foul play. Eventually, his death was linked with Brian Howe's killing and in August, the two girls were charged with two counts of manslaughter.

So, if any example is needed to define "buggered up" it was the rearing of Mary Bell. There might be another interesting factor; she was 'overlooked' just as the children of whom we have heard much in recent days. Now, take her situation. Just where could one start with a programme? We do not know but I would imagine that she would not have recognised any such approach as being to her benefit or advantage and it would have been necessary to hold her in closed accommodation. How long would it have taken to get her fit to be a free spirit as a 'normal' 12 year old? Bell herself made headlines when in September 1977, she briefly absconded from Moore Court open prison, where she had been imprisoned since her transfer from a young offender's institution to an adult prison a year earlier.

Without the exposure that arose from her trial, her actions would have remained as a secret within the child care profession. Venables is but the latest display of how wrong they can be in assessing whether an individual has learned anything positive or has merely been advised by others what to say to please his assessors. Do they speak from the heart or just imitate parrots? So, I feel that age should not be a determining factor when considering what happens to a young offender. There have to be some limits - I would be very afraid to be in a Nigerian prison at 47 still less seven. What comes from a court hearing is the opportunity for an impartial hearing to assess just how wicked or evil the defendant may be. The outcomes will be numerous - not guilty, guilty but not the full shilling, guilty but provoked beyond reason or just plain old vanilla guilty. This is where we invite the psycho-babblers in. What do they have in their range of voodoo that might work. (Yes - I am biased against psychiatry. I've experienced it first hand and in cases where I was closely involved). That treatment may take a long period of time and it would not be until the end that it was possible to say if it had been successful. No professional likes to say they have failed and we have seen the outcomes where too optimistic a view was taken when deciding whether to release someone into society.

Bell is another string to my bow of 'try em and keep them safe until they are fit to be alongside me and mine' She was released when 23 with a new secret identity and settled own into relative obscurity with attention being drawn only when she secured lifelong anonymity for her daughter and, subsequently, grand-daughter. There can be few who came from such desperately damaging origins who have metamorphosed into grey-haired old Granny.

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