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.
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.)
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 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.
- James Bulger killer Jon Venables granted parole (guardian.co.uk)
- James Bulger killer Jon Venables to be freed – BBC News (bbc.co.uk)