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20 March 1999

Caging children

As boys they took the life of the toddler Jamie Bulger. Now young men Jon Venables and Robert Thompson have won the right to appeal their sentence. The truth is that they should never have been prosecuted, writes James Heartfield

Venables and Thompson had no proper understanding of the crime they committed. As children they were certainly capable of understanding that they had done wrong - but not the true gravity of the crime they were accused of committing. On being told that the toddler was dead, one asked why they did not take the infant to the hospital to make him better. At trial, the two were incapable of concentrating on the proceedings, despite the fact that their freedom was hanging in the balance.

To send them to trial the home secretary of the day Michael Howard bent the rules, ignoring the principle that children between the ages 10 and 15 are not normally capable of bearing criminal responsibility. Since then the 'doli incapax' rule has been abolished so that many more children can be sent to trial.

Not once but twice the two had their sentences increased - not on grounds of justice, but as a political campaign by the home secretary to be seen to be acting tough on crime. This politically motivated sentencing would be a gross incursion on to the civil liberties of an adult prisoner. To seek to make capital out of hammering children is plain sadism. When the two brutalised Jamie Bulger it was shocking. But that is nothing when compared with the willingness of responsible, adult politicians to bully and brutalise two boys in prison.

The European court ruling indicates some of the embarrassment that greets Britain's ghoulish persecution of children. Since the abolition of the 'doli incapax' rule Britain now has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe, except for Ireland and Turkey. British courts have seen children as young as 10 stand trial in circumstances that they simply cannot understand. In one trial, the courts gave defendants crayoning books to occupy them, on the understanding that they could not be expected to follow the court proceedings - and yet these were the very proceedings on which their fate hung.

In a recent case an 11-year old boy stood trial for breaking a toddler's leg. The boy had some learning difficulties, and, while he knew that what he did was bad, he clearly had no comprehension of the full gravity of what he had done. Tough. He was taken to trial just 12 days after the abolition of 'doli incapax'. Now he has a criminal record. And because his victim was a child, he has been placed on a register of child abusers for the rest of his natural life. This boy is now to be counted among child-killers and perverts like Sidney Cooke: a beast who must inform potential employers of his record of abuse, and keep the police informed of his whereabouts, for the next 60 or more years.

Since the government decided that it would start prosecuting children, it has taken the next logical step and established jails for children. The first such institution is run by the private security firm Group 4, at the Medway. According to a report early this year by social services, staff training, services and conditions are in no way adequate for young children. Staff turnover has been high, and staff have complained of violence against them. Records of violence against the children is a more closely guarded secret - but it is known that staff have often lost control, having to call on Group 4's other security officers to regain control. Resentment at being thrown into cells led children at the Medway to riot last year.

The home secretary Jack Straw announced his latest raft of measures against children with a paper bullishly titled 'No more excuses'. Throughout the document Straw pours scorn on the principle of 'doli incapax' (which he translates as 'incapable of evil' rather than the more orthodox 'incapable of harm' - indicative of his own pre-modern thinking). To Straw it is simply untenable that children should be incapable of 'evil'. The idea that there is a difference between adult responsibility and childish misbehaviour makes no sense to him, because he does not really understand the former, as much as he does not understand the latter. A man who is used to treating adults like children finds it difficult to understand why you should not treat children as adults.

Proposals include more curfews against children, special laws to arrest children and more children's jails. So far a further four jails are planned, bringing the number of places up to 200.

It is difficult to believe that a grown man, let alone a senior politician should seek to aggrandise himself by attacking children. Such behaviour would have Straw sent on a permanent course of bullying counselling if it had taken place in a playground. But in government, it is acceptable to make yourself look big by beating on small boys and girls.

A society that punishes children for adult crimes has lost any sense of what adult responsibility is. Jack Straw simply does not understand that punishment is reserved for those who are capable of understanding that they have done wrong. But then Jack Straw does not understand that people are ordinarily capable of making responsible decisions for themselves. It is not children that Straw does not understand, it is adults, and adult responsibility.

Children in the dock, children's prisons, children pinned down by Group 4's hired goons, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson held prisoner at the home secretary's whim. These are the vicious and stupid consequences of a government that scorns liberty and responsibility. In years to come people will look back on New Labour's campaign against children with horror and amazement. Jack Straw's reputation will compare with Castlereagh's - or Herod's. Let's hasten that day.

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