Jon Venables released 20 years after murder of James Bulger

The potential release of Jon Venables is predictably accompanied by much wailing about how he is unfit for society. Perhaps he is, I do not know – but then, the vast majority of those who are wailing do not know either, they just love to wail.

People throwing rocks at pilloried criminal
There’s nothing like distraction therapy…

For me there is a crucial point here that I doubt anyone will bother considering, what with having such a big, distracting bandwagon to so easily leap on. But my question is this:

How can it be possible that a boy, later a man, can spend 20 years in a ‘corrective institution’, and not be corrected?

Just how utterly ineffective must it be to use prisons to punish people? How empty the rhetoric of rehabilitation for this to be the case?

If someone spent twenty years in a school and still couldn’t write, we’d close the school. 20 years in hospital and your arm is still broken? Questions would surely be asked. (And we’ll try and ignore that both these things appear increasingly likely thanks to our Governments dreadful mismanagement.)

In Today's news:- Things you cannot change that don't affect you... it's a must read...
In Today’s news:- Things you cannot change that don’t affect you…

We complain that the NHS and schools cost the taxpayer and thus should be efficient, yet at £48,000 a year per-prisoner, our corrective institutions seem even less efficient. Despite this the most common call from our tabloid reading, vacant headed, average moron is to punish more, imprison for longer and more often. Perhaps that’s because our schools don’t work…

In 2010 Venables was re-convicted on child-pornography charges. Without reservation these are terrible crimes, but I still want to ask why? Was his emotional development halted. Equally, sexual development cannot be easy in prison, where there is either no sex or furtive, illicit or even forced sex. What must it be like to spend two decades without being hugged by someone who cares for you? What effect does that have? I’m not excusing Venables, but I am asking if such utter deprivation is ever going to heal anybody. Thanks to the wailing these questions are rarely asked at all.

If Venables is beyond cure, if he cannot help but do harm, then he is medically sick. If he is sick then he is not responsible for his actions any more than a psychotic or delusional patient would be. If so, he should be in hospital, or under mental health care, not in prison.

If he murdered through choice, and had the capacity to choose otherwise, then he is not sick. His choice was due to bad thinking which ought to be treatable. In this case to fail to effectively treat him in 20 years, at a cost to us of £960,000 (plus trial costs etc.) is unforgiveable.

The main difference between a criminal and a non-criminal is getting caught...
The main difference between a criminal and a non-criminal is getting caught…

The real sickness I fear is that we as a society cannot forgive. Why we cannot is a big question for a different time, but it is clear that we cannot. In most countries you serve time for a crime and then return to society and rebuild. In the UK, however, once you have committed a crime it is with you for life. People won’t employ you, you lose many of your rights and in many cases you must declare your crime for life. There is no second chance.

The Bulger killing shocked the country, and it was a terrible and brutal crime. It was also none of our business, only the concern and tragedy of those involved. But we love to gawp and wail, to moralise and be outraged. We also love to punish.

Once released a deeply traumatised man with no social skills, few life chances and most likely no idea how to form nurturing relationships was left to live alone with a computer. Do the math. This doesn’t justify child-abuse, it asks serious questions about our legal system which claims to ‘protect the public’, yet which created this scenario.

Would Venables have chosen child-abuse images if he’d been offered therapeutic treatment in prison? Someone to talk with, to teach him about relationships, to offer physical comfort. Daily Mail drivelers will say this is coddling criminals, or outrageously costly. To hell with their outrage and right-wing obsession with punishment – my concern is with preventing victims. If we’d spent £96,000 on care, Venables might not have returned to prison, which cost more, and he might not have chosen child-abuse, the cost of which is beyond measure.

The Venables case ceased to be about the law, crime, facts or any other reality as soon as it became public. His treatment was based as much on satisfying moral outrage as it was on meting out justice. Of course his crime was terrible, and he needed to be punished in some way, but punishment alone is not enough.

Until we restructure our juridical systems and base them on compassion, rather than on retribution and vengeance, we will do nothing to prevent and nothing to cure those who cause harm.

Recidivism is not simply due to a criminals bad character, it is also caused by our refusal to forgive, which denies them the conditions in which change is possible. The price of our moral high ground and our self-righteous wailing is that people who commit crimes have little else left to them after prison but to commit more.

40 thoughts on “Jon Venables released 20 years after murder of James Bulger

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  1. What a great article and argument. As always your drawings really “hit the nail on the head”.

  2. Well argued. We have the same negative attitudes in the US, and we put a lot more people in cages than the UK does. Politics and media collude to make sure that the public has very little reason to think about prisoners as human beings first, and criminals second.

    1. Agreed Catana (and thanks for dropping by). Too many people and situations are exploited as political capital. We rarely see anything ‘as it is’ anymore, only ‘as it’s sold’.

  3. Here have more coffee while the rest of the Greenwich Village shows up. I’ll brew some fresh and put the tea kettle on.
    Fresh biscuits and fresh perspectives for a fresh humanity.

  4. Hey Panda… I think that you are right about forgiveness. We as a society don’t want to forgive or forget which is truly unhealthy for all involved. It seems that we choose to focus upon the bad behaviour of others and cry out for punishment as it allows us to look at the “Really bad” people and turn our attention away from ourselves. We can look at those who commit heinous crimes and say “this is what’s wrong with society”… it’s the blame game… and those who are judging can suddenly appear guilt free and clean…

    1. Hello Hearty. I do enjoy how you quietly hit the spot – I agree that’s exactly what happens. People use monsters to diminish their sins, and Govts use them to diguise their iniquities. Weirdly, despite this, there actually are no monsters…

  5. DEHi, Panda, good to read your provocative words again.

    Dear Panda,

    In my humble opinion, you make some very good points. My right-side leaning keeps me from buying your argument 100%…

    To call a prison a ‘correctional institution’ is rather ludicrous and perhaps an oxymoron… One locked up for a petty crime comes out ready for armed robbery, making for recidivism. You make this point well as do your cartoons. You are so right, our judicial system needs changes.

    I suppose my disagreement with you would come from your ‘none of our business’ side of the argument. Many years ago, before mass media and all the techie advances, any crime committed outside our immediate range was ‘none of our business’ because we didn’t have any awareness of the crime. Being bombarded today with every crime known to man, it is somewhat difficult not to have one’s heart and soul respond to the awful stuff that happens to our children, to innocent people simply going about their business. It is most natural, I think, to have moral outrage, to have anger, to want punishment for vile acts. Whether someone lives next to me, in my country, or other countries, I’m outraged when I see on TV or read of brutal crimes being committed…and I’m not thinking too much at the time about correcting an evil man’s predisposition to defile a child or to rape/murder a lovely person…I’m thinking, ‘punish him.’

    There are human bugs in society with evil genes, for whatever their family history, that need to be squashed. Some are born evil and stay evil – we cannot help them all. For those who can be identified as needing help should get that help from a caring society. The mind, with all its intellect, in my opinion, is not the only variable in ‘criminal analyses.’

    Good post, Panda. My compliments.

    Billy Ray

    1. Hi B-Ray. A considered response as ever, thank you. For me, the problem with being aware of so many tragedies is that we can effect so few. We become diverted and concerned with things over which we can have no influence. It is natuaral to respond emotionally, but in nature we would use this emotion to drive our physical response. With these distant tragedies the actual ‘unnatural’ bit is that we can no longer respond – so our compassion cannot act. We have no choice then but to develop so that we become conditioned TO DO NOTHING in the face of tragedy.
      But if we each ensured our own space was one of peace, there would be no war, however little we knew of 1000 miles away. There are a million kindnesses each day for every bad news story – and the media destroys our faith in this reality.
      Also – Yes, I often want to punish, but it is my ability to rise above this which enables me to do better, to be better than a savage. I feel we all have a duty to control our passions in order to do what is just.

  6. Panda, I’m very glad to see your work today. Thoughtful. Well-written. Plus great cartoons.

    Your commentary is on target for the “criminal justice” system in the U.S. as well. I especially like your comparison to the price paid for education. We graduate a lot of illiterates from our public schools. No one questions the system or the cost of education either.

    Every education failure is blamed on the individual just like every therapy and re-hab failure is blamed on the individual as well.

    We’re very good at blame in our culture of individuality.


    1. Hi Alice, how right you are. So much easier to blame than to accept one must grow. I hope one day we remember that we’re all products and reflections of each other. Individualism is terribly destructive.

      1. ” Individualism is terribly destructive.” True and well said. We are taught to worship individualism in America. This means one must take an axe to home, family and community to be a true believer.

        I hope you’re doing well. I’ve missed your posts.:-)

  7. Welcome back, Panda! It’s such a loaded thing, the subject of rehabilitation in prison. I don’t know how it is in the UK, but in the US, prisons are absolutely NOT rehabilitative. I don’t know how many inmates—the ones who haven’t been wrongly convicted, anyway—are truly contrite, but in any case, they don’t have a lot of opportunity for corrective behavior, etc, as far as I can tell. And since I’m not a psychiatrist, I have no idea how blurred the lines are between criminally inclined but able to stop committing crimes if they wanted, and mentally ill and unable to stop committing crimes. The crime against Jamie Bulger was horrendous, it’s hard to imagine someone who ISN’T mentally ill committing that crime. So one would argue that Venables is indeed ill and should be in a different type of facility. It’s an age-old problem, isn’t it. And one that doesn’t seem to have a solution that will be forthcoming any time soon.

    1. Hi Weebly. Sounds like the US and UK are very similar. I guess I hope we one day begin to treat each person as our child. If my child became a killer I’d have to look at my own role and responsibility – and I’d do all I can to understand and to try and help my child recover/change.
      At present, we seem to just say “well, this is a problem – better just throw them away.” There’s always going to be crime, becuse we are imperfect, but in my naivity, I beleive if we could be more loving/parental to each other crime would reduce.

  8. It is very rare that someone asks “why” an individual has committed a crime, and I thank you for that. It seems society as a whole has no use for finding the root of the problem and thus truly being able to find a solution. Many crimes that people are imprisoned for are a direct result of their environment, but governments are not interested in attempting to correct that issue, for it would cost too much time, money, and energy (while truthfully, it would cost less of all three across time). Having spent the last 10 years of my life working with the children of people that have “chosen” less than honorable life styles, I dream of a day when their pain and suffering would become important enough for government officials to see that there is something inherently wrong with how we treat others that don’t fit into societies “rules.” I always wonder how many of these children would have been saved their hardship if there were actual rehabilitation services available to those that truly needed it…and how many of them will go on to continue the cycle.

    1. Thank you so much for reading Smarty- and you are so very right. Our short-termist rejection of ‘misfits’ costs us dearly in the long term, not just financially but as you say, it can ruin children’s lives – and partners and other loved ones.
      There are a tiny number of people who are ‘broken’, to cruel to be cured, but it’s a fraction of those whose lives are lost to prison and the life sentence of having a criminal record.
      It seems to me that our governments legislation creates a no-win situation for many, and then punishes those who ‘cheat’ to stay alive. Somehow we have to evolve beyond our animal thirst for punishment and revenge and find compassionate solutions.

  9. “In this case to fail to effectively treat him in 20 years, at a cost to us of £960,000 (plus trial costs etc.) is unforgiveable.” Yes what an industry the warehousing of individuals rather than genuine care, concern and as needed correction. Well-spoken. You rant good Panda.

    1. A very clear example of where we’ve gone wrong – and saddest of all, that we think ‘it’s too late’ to change and return to being compassionate… sad.
      Thanks for the link – an interesting article.

    1. Hi Miriam, Times are tough, but no loss of life! Haven’t been here for an age, as you can tell, have missed you all too.
      Hopefully one day I’ll have time to come back and play 🙂

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