Friday, 8 April 2016

A Tale of Two Murders

When two boys were convicted of the horrific murder of James Bulger in November 1993, I was working in the Home Office on secondment from NACRO. My job in the Criminal Policy Department was to advise Ministers about juvenile justice and so it was I found myself among a group of officials in Michael Howard’s office watching the news emerging from Preston Crown Court.

I remember two things about the occasion. First, how abruptly Howard dealt with a call put through from Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley, who was considering putting out some sort of statement about the case. In those days there was a long running turf war between the Home Office and DoH about responsibility for children in trouble, but Howard left his Cabinet colleague in no doubt that if any statement were to be made, it would be by him.

Second, when it became clear that the boys would be locked up for many years- the judge initially recommended eight, later raised to ten by the Lord Chief Justice- child care expert Spencer Millham told a TV interviewer that above all, what these boys would need was therapy. Howard turned round and asked us briskly “will they get therapy?  We assured him that certainly while the boys were being held in local authority secure units a therapeutic approach would be taken to their care.

There are of course some echoes of the case in this week’s conviction and sentencing of two young girls for the highly distressing murder of Angela Wrightson. While unlike James Bulger’s killers, the girls’ anonymity has been preserved – although for how long is not entirely clear - their minimum custodial periods they will serve are much higher. 15 years was in fact the period that Michael Howard sought to impose in the Bulger case before having his role in tariff setting ruled unlawful by the House of Lords (and his specific intervention in the case described by a former Master of the Rolls as “institutionalised vengeance”).

The judge’s sentencing remarks in the Wrightson case are carefully reasoned, although his assertion that the minimum term “cannot be reduced or cut down in any way”does not seem to allow for the power- which I understood exists – for the Secretary of State to release life sentence prisoners on compassionate grounds if exceptional circumstances justify it. But the 15 year tariff- greater than the age of each of the girls – begs the question about whether the law complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that the imprisonment of a child shall be used “only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.  The 12 year starting point for consideration of a minimum term for anyone under 18 convicted of murder is surely too rigid to meet the second of these requirements.

The two girls will spend the first three or four years receiving the kind of therapeutic care and education that they certainly need. But as things stand at 18 they will be moved not even to a specialist Young Offender Institution but an adult prison where – as I reported in a recent research study- many women suffer from a toxic mix of fear and boredom.

In 2000,  Lord Woolf reviewed the  minimum sentence for the pair in the Bulger case , recommending their  tariff be reduced back to  eight years, in part because the positive impact of treatment in the secure units could risk being undone in the  "corrosive atmosphere" of  prison. Much the same argument could be made again. There is a case at the least for changing the law so that any progress the girls have made is considered before they are moved into adult prison. Of course if they still represent a danger at that point they should continue to be detained. But what if not?

Many people will feel that the prospect of release after such a period could not properly reflect the terrible wrong that has been done in the taking of a life. But at the very least there is a debate to be had about the proper approach to these kind of highly disturbing and thankfully rare cases. Perhaps the Charlie Taylor review can ask if the diluted version of the adult system which we have in England and Wales is the best way we can provide justice for such highly damaged children as well as those to whom they cause harm.    


  1. The judge should not have made that comment (re no reduction possible). I think he made it because of the lack of understanding in people's minds about sentencing. Already I've seen tweets; etc which say '15 years, they'll be out in 7.5'.

    And I believe the precedent of the Bulger case allows for consideration of progress while in custody. That is what Woolf based his lower tariff on (he had said that he would have placed the tariff at 10 years but the Lords judgement which made clear that welfare must be the chief priority suggested that consideration of progress must be given).

    As things stand, I'm guessing they will be placed in a LASCH until 18 (they could be moved to a STC and may be there already but I would say this is inadvisable). The problems are going to be what happens at 18? The limited number of places within the women's secure estate means that there is a high chance of them ending up in the same one. I find that deeply troubling.

  2. Also, didn't even Howard's 15 year tariff allow for a review? I thought trial judge argued for a 8 year tariff with review after 5 years; the LCJ argued for a 10 year tariff, reviewed after 7 years while Howard argued for a 15 year tariff reviewed after 12 years?

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