Paul Firth: A question of release and redemption as Bulger killer goes back into custody

THE truly horrifying attack on two young boys in Edlington last year inevitably brought comparisons with the 1993 torture and killing of James Bulger. We could not have expected those older memories to be revived a second time quite so quickly.

Jon Venables's recall to custody poses a number of questions, some of which go to the very heart of the public's understanding of and support for our criminal justice system.

Why doesn't "life" mean exactly that? Should Venables and his

accomplice Robert Thompson have been released? And what has Venables done to be recalled?

When Venables and Thompson were convicted of murder in 1993, the law

required the sentencing judge, Mr Justice Morland, to order that they be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. He then had an element of discretion in deciding what is known as the "tariff".

The tariff is the minimum term, for the purposes of retribution and deterrence, that a life prisoner must serve before he becomes eligible for parole. Release at the end of such a term is not automatic. The decision rests with the Parole Board, who must consider whether there is any continuing unacceptable risk to the public.

Only if they are satisfied that no such risk exists can the prisoner be released. But they cannot be expected to forecast and take into account every possible risk, no matter how unlikely or minor.

Some life sentences mean precisely that; the prisoner will never be released. Moors murderer Myra Hindley died in prison; Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe is currently hoping to persuade a judge that he need not do the same. Most "lifers" serve the punishment part of their

sentence and are eventually released on licence. But the law acknowledges that some murderers must spend longer in prison than others before being eligible for parole.

Mr Justice Morland fixed the tariff for Venables and Thompson at eight years. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, exercised his power to increase it to 10 years. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, later exercised the power he then had to increase it to 15 years. That turned out to be an intervention too far and, following a ruling of the House of Lords and a consequent change in the law, all tariffs are now set by courts.

Venables and Thompson were released after serving eight years in a secure unit. At 10 years of age, they had been the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century. Mary Bell, convicted of manslaughter by reason of her mental state, was 11 when she killed. Had James Bulger's killers been just a few months younger, the law would not have allowed them to be charged, let alone convicted.

Their age was a vital factor in fixing the tariff. All such decisions need to balance retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation – not an easy task. With older sadistic murderers – Hindley and Ian Brady, for example – the balancing decision is easier to make.

With very young killers – and there are mercifully few of them – rehabilitation weighs more heavily. Even Michael Howard's decision, had it stood, could have resulted in Venables's release two years ago.

Unless a 10-year-old can be said to be beyond redemption, life was never going to mean life. Despite the undoubted gravity of his crime, sooner or later a Parole Board review would have freed Venables, just as Mary Bell was freed in 1980.

More recently, the Edlington brothers, aged 11 and 12 when sentenced, were also given indeterminate sentences with a tariff of five years each. Although it could be argued their crimes were less severe than that of Venables, not least because their victims survived, the Attorney General announced two weeks ago that she would not seek to have their tariff increased.

If we do allow ourselves the hope that very young offenders have the possibility of rehabilitation, we do so only with the reserve position that any failure on their part must be faced with swift and serious consequences.

Mary Bell and Robert Thompson, as far as we know, have never come to

the adverse attention of the authorities. The same is true of many, but by no means all, older "lifers".

Another question with Jon Venables's breach is whether the public at large, or at least James Bulger's family, should be told the nature and seriousness of what he has done.

Experience strongly suggests that the breach of his licence will not be a minor and isolated incident. It will be either repeated minor breaches or one much more significant act, such as a serious criminal offence.

What is gained by making the details public? The taxpayer has indeed spent a lot of money rehabilitating and protecting Venables. But do we need to know more than that "the system" has worked, that he is back in custody and that he may well remain there for a very long time?

Paul Firth is a retired district judge who sat in magistrates' courts in Yorkshire, Merseyside and Lancashire.