A toddler is taken by two boys and brutally killed by them. It’s a senseless, and in some ways sadistic, killing. But the victim isn’t Jamie Bulger, it’s a 5 year old Norwegian girl – Slije Redergard. The killers have never been named in the media, but they were 6 year old boys.
The two killers were four years younger than Jon Venables and Robert Thompson and even in England they would have been too young to be prosecuted. But the four year age gap is not the only difference – the way that the two communities dealt with the child killers were poles apart.
Mr Venables and Mr Thompson were, at the time of the killings, ten year old boys. There was an immediate outpouring of hate when they attended court and many people expressed outrage at the fact that, when they were found guilty, they ‘only’ received a life sentence with a minimum term of 8 years.
As is well known, Mr Venables re-offended after his release and was imprisoned for child pornography offences. With the news that Jon Venables release was directed by the Parole Board, the reaction has not been restrained. Jamie’s mother, Denise Fergus, has expressed her anger at the release, as well as her view that the Parole Board got it wrong. I’m not criticising her, her reaction is understandable – she has, after all, lost her son.
But she is certainly not alone in her views. A quick search on twitter (#justiceforjames) shows that there is a great deal of anger. One, chosen at random, is :
Is our reaction right? It is useful to look at just how different the reaction in Norway was. Mr Thompson and Mr Venables were tried as adults in the Crown Court, their mugshots released to the public. In Norway on the other hand”Silje’s killers were back at [a different local school] within a week. The local community [who knew their identities] were encouraged to air their views and brought together to grieve openly … there were no reprisals against either of the boys or their families. They were able to carry on living on the local housing estate.”
In Trondheim there were no calls for punishment, let alone the outpouring we saw in the UK. This seemed to be across the board. Silje’s mother, for example, agreed that they should not be punished saying “I feel sympathy for them … They need compassion. They must be treated as children and be shown kindness and concern rather than vengeance.”
Of course, the boys in Norway were six, rather than ten in England. It doesn’t appear that that would have made a difference – the age of criminal responsibility is 15 (rather than 10 in England – the lowest in Europe). A journalist who covered the case said “They were six-years-old, but even if they were 11, it would not have been an issue.” The police officer in charge of the case, when (it seems) he was asked about the Bulger case, said “I really don’t like to hear that you can put children, ten years old, into custody“.
Have we got it right? Or could we learn from our cousins across the North Sea? I can’t pretend that I’ve got all the answers, but sometimes I think we ought to have a proper conversation as to whether our approach to penal policy is right. There is a case against hate, a case for compassion in dealing with criminal acts committed by children.
Making policy based around individual cases is always dangerous, especially when dealing with ‘outliers’, cases such as these that are extreme. Of course the Slije Redergard killing is different to the Jamie Bulger one, and England is different to Norway. Having said all of that, let’s not forget that even allowing for the differences in population (and urban populations), Norway has lower crime, lower costs of incarceration (and the criminal justice system in general) and a lower recidivism rate. Maybe we could learn from them?