Friday, 5 March 2010

Life means life

In another great result for the tabloid press, the man whose birth name was Jon Venables will have to be given a new identity, all for an estimated £250,000.

A special mention here is due to the Mirror, the left-wing non-Murdoch non-Dacre newspaper which has revealed as much as it dare about the circumstances of the former Venables' incarceration. But hang on, isn't the Mirror the nice tabloid, the one targeted at would-be Guardian readers with short attention spans? The very same.

But then, as the Home Secretary Alan Johnson pointed out, the public have a right to know, don't they, what a former child criminal is doing with his life. Given that he has gone and got himself into trouble.

The language used by the Mirror in its report is, to say the least, somewhat loaded. Here's the start of it:


Skulking into Liverpool under his new identity, James Bulgers killer Jon Venables cynically flouted his strict parole rules to go on wild benders with mates.

In a cruel snub to the memory of the innocent toddler he and Robert Thompson battered to death, the 27-year-old hit the nightclubs to get smashed on cider and cocktails while snorting cocaine and popping ecstasy pills.

Sources revealed Venables has also slipped into Goodison Park to watch Everton play football in the nine years since he was freed from jail, despite being banned from Merseyside.

The barbaric thug even clumsily chatted up women in clubs not too far away from where he and Thompson killed two-year-old James in 1993. During his sessions he would down Cheeky Vimtos, a lethal cocktail made up of two shots of port and a bottle of blue WKD.

Stripped of its lurid emotiveness, what this report is telling us is that a man who, as a ten-year old boy committed a notoriously vile murder (but as a ten-year old boy, not as a twenty-seven-year old man) has been:

- visiting nightclubs
- drinking
- taking drugs
- watching football
- chatting up women

This is entirely normal behaviour. Apart from the drugs, it isn't even illegal. It doesn't make him a danger to society. No other man in his mid-to-late twenties who visited nightclubs, drank, watched football or chatted up women (clumsily or otherwise) would find himself banged up without trial at Her Majesty's pleasure. This is the first thing. At most, the former Venables' behaviour suggests that his life has become somewhat chaotic since he left child prison almost a decade ago. He may not entirely have escaped the traumatic circumstances of his youth. He may need help. Or he may just like watching football, drinking and chatting up women in nightclubs. Plenty of young men without his dark past have similar tastes.

It's unlikely in the extreme that his football-watching, nightclub-visiting, woman-chatting-up behaviour was part of "a cruel snub to the memory of the innocent toddler he and Robert Thompson battered to death." It was, possibly, an attempt to be normal, to blend in. Why did he feel the need to return to the Merseyside area from which he had been banned for life, despite knowing that if found out he might well find himself recalled to prison, without charge, trial or judge? Who knows? Certainly not those fine upstanding folk at the Mirror. It may even have been homesickness. However, even the Mirror admits that "he has never returned to Bootle, the district of ­Liverpool where he snatched little James from a packed shopping centre and led him to his horrific death at a nearby rail track." Those last pornographic details presumably added just in case we had forgotten who we were dealing with.

The English system of recall on licence means that a life sentence never really ends. It can never finally be decided that an ex-convict has paid his or her debt to society. Even an act committed at the age of ten can never be forgotten. A convict released on licence may at any time be recalled to prison, while any other person, even one who has served a comparable stretch in prison under a determinate sentence, could only be returned to jail following a new trial - during which the details of his former offending will normally be withheld from the jury. It is the long elastic band of the law.

There's something fundamentally unfair about the way in which an ancient offence, however serious, haunts its perpetrator like the Furies, depriving them of the normal safeguards that the criminal justice system affords to everyone else in society. Where the culprit was a young child at the time of the original offence - and might easily live seventy years after his release - such a procedure is even more questionable. As Brian Masters points out in the Telegraph, "we cannot feel anger at this man who was detained yesterday, for we no longer know who he is." The anger - genuine on the part of the relatives of the victim, synthetic on the part of everyone else, and entirely cynical on the part of the tabloids and some politicians - is directed at a child who no longer exists. The criminal justice system ought to reflect this, by offering former child offenders a clean break. It is, of course, too much to expect such maturity of the media, but that is all the more reason to demand it from the law.

As it is, by using its recall power in this case the probation service has undone years of careful work ensuring Jon Venables' anonymity, and thus his life, given the press an opportunity to re-open old wounds and ensured that new, even more costly safeguards will have to be created when he is re-released.