The appropriate level of crime and punishment

Chris Schafer

Two of Britain’s most notorious murderers are soon to be free eight years after they were convicted of one of the most brutal killings in the country’s history. In 1993, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – both 10 years old at the time – abducted two-year-old James Bulger from a shopping mall near Liverpool. The boys, who were playing hooky from school, then mutilated Bulger and left his dead body on the railroad tracks before going home for dinner.

And now, eight years later, they will soon be allowed to walk freely among the public. True, it isn’t total freedom; Venables and Thompson are forever forbidden from contacting one another or the family of the deceased. They can never again enter the county of Merseyside, the site of the murder, without obtaining written permission first, and they will be on parole for the rest of their lives. Yet, few other killers, save for O.J. Simpson, have ever had it so good.

Eight years and nightly bed checks for the rest of your life? One could argue that the eight years the children spent in the juvenile correctional facility were barely punishment in their own right. During their incarceration, Venables and Thompson obtained academic qualifications and participated in recreations such as trips to the theater and whitewater rafting.

Why were they released so early? Home Secretary Michael Howard had increased Venables’ and Thompson’s sentence from eight to 15 years for the murder of Bulger. But in October, a judge returned the ruling to its original sentence, saying the boys shouldn’t be exposed to the “corrosive atmosphere of an adult prison.” These two had already kidnapped a two-year-old child, mutilated him and left his body on the railroad tracks before nonchalantly going home for dinner. Honestly, how much more “corroding” can be done?

The ascension from juvenile to adult status, simply based on a change in age, should not merit automatic freedom for any and all criminals. This is a prison sentence, not a graduation. If someone kills another human being, especially a child, he deserves to be incarcerated. It
shouldn’t matter at all what the age is. In a society where we attempt, and correctly so, to be color and class blind, we should strive to be blind to age as well. Crimes should be judged more heavily by their severity, rather than the characteristics of the individual. We are all responsible for our own actions.

In preparation for their release, the British government has given Venables and Thompson bank accounts and homes. Most University graduates don’t enter the real world with such charming accommodations. A fake history coupled with new lodgings creates an anonymity of witness-relocation proportions. Both boys obtained, through the government, new names and completely recreated pasts. Even the British press is blocked from knowing the whereabouts of Thompson and Venables for the adolescents’ own safety. Such despicable crimes might never happen if we spent more time looking out for the welfare of would-be victims rather than murderers.

But this entire case seems to be more
concerned with protecting the criminals rather than the victims. After interviewing Venables and Thompson, experts said the boys posed “no unacceptable risk to the public.” What exactly is considered an acceptable risk to the public? Labels such as these spawn from our urges to be too soft on crime. Instead of worrying about what hardships murderers might endure during their tenure in prison, it is supposedly better to just thrust them back into society and hope they’ll behave themselves. Second chances shouldn’t apply to those who kill. Especially those who kill small children.

During a time when the United States has drawn so much criticism worldwide for the execution of Timothy McVeigh, is the aforementioned a better form of alternative punishment? No, I am not advocating the execution of children, even those who commit crimes as terrible as the murder committed by Venables and Thompson. But there has to be a middle-of-the-road line of punishment – something in between execution and a murderer’s slap on the wrist, as was handed out to the boys in Liverpool.

As a society we have to be willing to make people accept personal responsibility for their actions. When people commit acts of premeditated murder, they don’t deserve to be members of society anymore, especially when the victim is an innocent child who was seen on the mall security cameras being led from the store. This act was premeditated, and its perpetrators have no business living free among society.

The release of Venables and Thompson has drawn harsh criticism from victims’ rights groups that claim justice was denied them. And aren’t they right? In America, an individual can obtain a harsher sentence for dealing drugs than these two murderers received. Crime control cannot be forceful and politically correct at the same time. Some individuals don’t deserve to live among the rest of society, and it’s time we realized that rather than continue to hand out chance after chance after chance. After all, I bet the family of James Bulger probably has quite a different definition of what an “acceptable” risk to the public is.

Chris Schafer’s column usually runs alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]