Why we must be told the truth

Fury: Jack Straw is refusing to say why Jon Venables (pictured here at the time of the James Bulger killing) has been recalled to jail

Fury: Jack Straw is refusing to say why Jon Venables (pictured here at the time of the James Bulger killing) has been recalled to jail

To the fury of most British people, who think that James Bulger's killers served nothing like a sufficient sentence, Justice Secretary Jack Straw insisted yesterday that no details would be given of what further offence Jon Venables has committed.

Not even James's mother has been given any information, thereby reinforcing her perception that she has been badly let down by the political establishment.

As a criminologist who has studied the case in depth, I understand the widespread indignation not only over the brevity of the sentences which, after much legal wrangling, amounted to only eight years, but also over the refusal by the Government to enlighten the public as to what Venables has done.

The secrecy over this case is incredible. I have spoken to some contacts in the prison service and none of them has any knowledge about Venables.

Given the highly-charged nature of this saga and its political implications, I believe that Jack Straw has got this wrong. The public has the right to know not only the nature of Venables's breach of his licence but also how long he will remain in custody and whether his identity will be changed again.

Keeping us all in the dark will only further undermine faith in the justice system. The problem is that the public have been utterly patronised by our politicians.

They've treated us like children who can't handle the truth. But until we know the truth, there can't be a proper debate about the important implications of this case. An open and honest judicial system has never been more vital than it is now.

This honesty and openness is just as important for Venables. If he knew that his behaviour were subject to public knowledge and scrutiny, it would make it much more likely that he would stay on the straight and narrow.

Alongside Detective Albert Kirby, who led the original investigation into the Bulger murder, I recently had to give a lecture to serving police officers about the case. This exercise again reminded me what a monstrous crime this was.

Particularly horrific was the lengthy, deliberate intent behind the actions of Venables and Thompson.

This was not a moment of frenzied, childish madness but a drawn-out act of brutality. For James was led on a journey of two and a half miles, with the two boys persistently battering him along the way.

During this trip into hell, they passed no fewer than 38 witnesses, none of whom intervened to save James.

As darkness fell, Venables and Thompson brought their victim to a railway line where they kicked him to death and hammered him with bricks and an iron bar before leaving his partially stripped body on the tracks, to be severed by a train.

There is no doubt that, as was revealed in the subsequent trial, both Venables and Thompson were profoundly disturbed boys. Few children who had been brought up in a normal, secure household could have behaved with such spectacular cruelty towards a toddler.

Thompson was one of six siblings who fought constantly with each other.

Their mother was an alcoholic who suffered from mental illness. Ironically, Jon Venables was regarded as 'the normal one' in his family because both of his two siblings had been classified as having learning difficulties.

But his school record was littered with violence and challenges to authority, which perhaps reflected his rage at his family's attention being devoted to his two siblings.

This upbringing should not be used as any sort of excuse for his crime. It does mean, however, that there was always a disturbed element within his personality, which makes especially difficult for him to handle the conditions of his licence.

By being granted anonymity since his release in 2001, he has been required to eradicate-every trace of his past identity. He has been given a new name, a new location.

He can never talk to anyone about his criminal history. He cannot visit his native city or meet anyone from his past. Even for a well-balanced person this would be difficult. For a troubled young man, though, it is especially hard.

That is why I was concerned when Venables and Thompson were released, at the age of just 18, having served only eight years.

The haste of their release was both an affront to justice and, as it turns out, probably did Venables himself no good at all

Because they had spent no time inside prison as adults, my worry was that they would not have the maturity or resilience to handle the strict conditions of anonymity imposed on them.

At times, it seemed as if the judges and the Home Office were rushing to release them as soon as they reached 18, precisely so they would not have to go into an adult jail.

Such haste was both an affront to justice and, as it turns out, probably did Venables himself no good at all.

But anger over their sentences should not obscure the reality that children can be rehabilitated, no matter how monstrous their crimes. Youthful killers cannot be regarded as entirely beyond redemption and, for all their sickening lethality, Venables and Thompson were still children.

We have only to think of the case of Mary Bell to see the possibilities of reform. Bell, who strangled two boys in 1968, was brought up in a dysfunctional household.

Her mother was a prostitute who specialised in the provision of sadomasochistic services to her clients and even sometimes required young Mary to join in.

After serving 12 years, Bell was released at the age of 23, was able to build a new life for herself and has never breached her licence.

Another problem with the Bulger case is how it has become a political football. At the time of the murder, Tony Blair was the rising star of the Labour Party and turned himself into a major national figure with a speech warning that Britain was sliding into 'moral chaos' and promising that New Labour would be 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'.

Michael Howard responded with his famous 'prison works' speech to the Tory Conference.

In this atmosphere, rational debate was always going to be difficult.

That still applies today  -  particularly if the Government refuses to let the public know the reason behind Jon Venables's breach of his licence. What we need now is some clarity and honesty.

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