In light of the Jon Venables uproar

I realize Jon Venables is a bit off topic from my usual blog fare; however, the case did involve the kidnap and murder of a child, so I don’t think it’s as tangential as, say, an entry about Wikipedia in different languages.

Anyway, I thought I’d post this book review I wrote a few days ago. The book is Children Who Kill: an examination of the treatment of juveniles who kill in different European countries, edited by Paul Cavadino.

This is a legal book written for Great Britain. It’s the sort of thing that is normally kept in law libraries. In other words, not for everyone. But if you’re interested in juvenile justice, you’ll find it fascinating. I sure did. I happened to order it through inter library loan just a few days before Jon Venables was recalled to prison. The book references the James Bulger murder several times.

The book is a collection of essays written by various people in the know (lawyers, judges, social workers, forensic psychiatrists, etc) about the juvenile justice systems in various European countries and also in Canada. I knew Europe was much more lenient on young killers than the United States, but I hadn’t realized just how much. In the Netherlands, for example, a person under 14 cannot be charged with a crime, and a person under 16 cannot serve more than a year in custody no matter what they’ve done, whereas the United States has in recent years sentenced children as young as eleven to life without parole.

The essays are quite self-critical; each author acknowledges their country’s system has problems. But it’s worth noting that, in terms of recidivism, any one of the European systems is much more effective than the American one. Europe focuses much more on rehabilitation and education than punishment, unlike the American system. The British system is also leaning that way.

My only criticism is I wish this book had more about Eastern European countries. Only one of them, Latvia, got an essay. All the others were from Western Europe. Also, it’s worth noting that this book was published in 1996, over ten years ago. I wonder if there have been any major changes in the laws since then.

Jon Venables has been busy

The media has thus far put forth the following “facts” about Jon Venables:

He is engaged to be married
He couldn’t get into a close relationship with a woman
He worked “a minimum wage job”
He worked at a fast food restaurant
He worked as a bouncer
He went on vacation to Norway
He started using all kinds of drugs after his release from custody
He got in trouble for cocaine possession
He was recalled because of his drug addiction
He was recalled because he kept going back to Liverpool, the city where he committed his crime
He was recalled because he got in a fight with a coworker
He was recalled for possessing child porn
He was recalled because he kept telling other people who he really was
He was recalled for committing a “sickening sex attack”

I suppose next they’ll say he became a movie actor and was recalled because he slept with the Queen. This Skoob News article says it best:

With the truth about the reason for child killer Jon Venables’ reincarceration unlikely to be revealed anytime soon, I can exclusively reveal that Britain’s notorious tabloid press have taken a leaf out of this Spoof writer’s illustrious book and simply made the headlines up.

Satire aside, this is a good editorial about the media coverage.

Previous Jon Venables claims denied

From the Daily Mail: Claims that he was involved in a fight with a colleague and had a long-standing drink and drugs problem have been dismissed.

Privately, sources have described the reason for his recall as ‘shocking’, prompting speculation that Venables may have been violent towards a child or woman.

The reason is thought to be so serious that it is unlikely he will even be considered for release for at least a year.

The Daily Mail is denying claims from “private sources” that say Jon got into a fight and has a drug problem. So why should we believe their own “private sources”?

This editorial and this article say a lot of the same things I’ve been thinking.

More details on Jon Venables

The London Daily Telegraph, quoting unnamed sources, says Jon Venables was sent back to prison because he got into a bad fight with a co-worker and he’s gotten in trouble for using drugs before:

Venables is said to have developed a cocaine and ecstasy habit after being released in 2001. His arrest in 2008 is said to have happened when plain-clothed policemen caught him taking cocaine in an alley outside a nightclub.

Venables, said to have been living alone in a bedsit in the north of England, is reported to have been recalled after losing his temper “without warning” at his minimum wage job, fighting with a colleague until they were pulled apart.

In another article in the same paper it says,

Cloaked under his new identity, he regularly drank eight pints of Strongbow cider as well as Cheeky Vimtos – a potent combination of the alcopop WKD and two shots of port – it has been claimed.

Venables also allegedly took ecstasy and snorted cocaine and kitty – also known as methadrone or MCAT – on his nights out in the city.

Sources said he often left his friends to wander the streets of Liverpool at night – waiting alone at the station for the first train home in the morning.

But they insisted he had never returned to Bootle – the district of Liverpool where he and Thompson abducted Bulger from a crowded shopping centre.

The 27-year-old is said to have attempted to flirt with women in bars and nightclubs, but to have difficulty forming long term relationships.

Yet other accounts I read just a few days ago claimed Venables was engaged to be married. They also said his co-killer Robert Thompson was living with a gay lover. I don’t know how much you can trust these unverified sources — though of course any source that reveals their name is going to get in big trouble for releasing that kind of information.

The Sun is saying Venables is now in isolation because the other prisoners figured out his identity (in spite of the beard he’d grown) and they don’t want him to get killed. If this is true, it’s only a matter of time before the general public also learns his new name too.

I wonder what the government is going to do with him — if they really are going to keep him in prison for the rest of his life. All I can do is shake my head in wonder. That boy was given an opportunity hardly anyone has — a chance, a glorious golden chance to start over with a completely clean slate. A chance he really didn’t deserve, given what he had done. And he blew it.

Interesting articles out of Britain

Tonight I discovered that Jon Venables, one of the boys who killed James Bulger back in 1993, has been sent back to prison after violating the terms of his parole. Venables and his partner in crime, Robert Thompson, were only ten years old when they killed James. They were released nine years ago and given new identities and lifelong anonymity — under strict conditions, including that they have no contact with each other and no contact with James’s family. Well, Venables did something he shouldn’t have — they’re not saying what — and now he’s back in jail, possibly for the rest of his life.

This is kind of surprising in a way because, back in 1993, everyone agreed that the more dangerous of the two was Thompson. He was the leader and Venables was the follower, and Thompson is said to have been violent when he was in custody. But it’s Venables that apparently violated parole — what’s with that? Until we find out just what it was he did, and that might not be for awhile, it’s difficult to speculate.

This case brings back echoes of Mary Bell, an eleven-year-old girl who tortured and murdered two little boys back in the sixties. Like Thompson and Venables, she was released (after twelve years) and given a new identity and lifelong anonymity from public scrutiny. Since then she hasn’t committed any crimes and, in fact, successfully raised a child to adulthood. I read Cries Unheard, Gitta Sereny’s book about Mary, back in 2006. Just a few months ago I read Looking for JJ, a novel obviously based on the Bell case. (And a very good book it was too.)

I was poking around the news sites looking for more info on Venables, and I found this really interesting three-year-old article about released sex offenders in Britain and what “the system” is doing to try to keep them from re-offending. In summary: not much. Even offenders considered at “very high risk” of recidivism are only visited once every three months. But, surprisingly, the monitoring seems to be working:

According to the most recent figures from the Home Office, there are now almost 30,000 offenders on the national sex offenders’ register – or an increase of 4 per cent on the year before. Yet in 2005 just 250 serious crimes were committed by offenders in the programme.

An idea of how many crimes were anticipated and prevented can be gleaned from the fact that 1,640 of the 13,783 offenders in the two most serious categories of risk were found to have breached their licences or Sexual Offences Protection Order… All were returned to custody immediately.

So .83% of the 30,000 people committed serious crimes in 2005 (assuming one crime per person), and 11.98% of those in the most serious category got in trouble for violating the conditions of their release, which include not hanging around playgrounds or schools. Those are actually really good results. The recidivism rates for the average person getting released from prison are nowhere near as good as that.

Which, when you think about it, is really really sad.