Children and criminal responsibility

Children and criminal responsibility – at what age should our children lose their innocence and take on adult responsibility? Compare and contrast the British and Norwegian standpoint on this issue. In 1993 the murder of two-year-old James Bulger caused a national outrage. The media frenzy was caused not so much by the death of a small child, but by the age of his killers. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were just ten years old when they committed the murder. The case caused a moral panic.

There was endless speculation about the nature of childhood, what could have caused such cruelty in children. The killers were subject to intense speculation. Were they inherently evil? Did they truly know what they were doing? Many questions were also raised about how society should react to them, could or even should they ever be forgiven or rehabilitated. A year later there was a similar case in Norway. The two killers were 6-year-old children. There was an edge of cruelty about the way they killed, and again the victim was a very young child, in this case a little girl.

The contrast between the way the two societies reacted could not be starker. Solicitor Laurence Lee represented one of the killers in the Bulger case, and has written extensively about it. In this essay I will aim to examine what happened in the Norwegian case, and looks at the way the killers were treated there, and how the people of Norway viewed these children. Trondheim, like my home city Liverpool, famous for its sport and its imposing cathedral, only we've got two.

And there's something else Trondheim shares with Merseyside, it also was the scene of a terrible murder which caused the nation to examine its conscience, for here too a child was killed by other children. The Fifteenth of October 1994 was a lazy Saturday afternoon. Families were enjoying the first snow of winter. A little girl was out playing near her home. Norway is a safe country; any violent crime is rare. Silje Marie Raedergard was five years old, the middle of three children.

The most her mother had to fear was an accident. She hadn't even been gone long enough to worry about. Silje had been murdered. The police quickly narrowed down the prime suspects, the two boys seen nearby. They were both six years old. The Bulger tragedy was almost identical and many thought long and hard about the way the two boys were dealt with and the punishment they received. Norway has a reputation for progressive welfare policies, and I will discuss how differently they dealt with their two child killers.

The abduction of Jamie Bulger from a Merseyside shopping centre shocked Britain in 1993, and the legal repercussions continue, even now. Found guilty, they had to serve their sentence. The Tiller estate where Silje lived and died was built in the 1970s on the edge of Trondheim. Unlike many council estates, the housing is good, you won't find any graffiti or vandalism. Social conditions are very different in Norway. The day after Silje was killed, wild rumours were flying around Tiller, just like on Merseyside after Jamie Bulger's death.

The local head teacher, Eric Eimghellen, realized that the whole community would be affected, and immediately organized a public meeting so everybody on the estate could find out what had happened. They encouraged parents and children to grieve openly. They set up a team to work with the children on Monday and the rest of the week, in this school, so everybody knew that if they came to school they could get help. The strategy worked. Amazingly there were no reprisals against the two boys or their families.

They were able to carry on living on the estate. Even Silje's mother who bore the greatest burden of grief was not vengeful. Quite different to what happened in Liverpool. Beate's compassion couldn't be in starker contrast to the Bulger case, where Jamie's family organized a petition, signed by a quarter of a million people, and the Sun newspaper had a clip-out coupon urging the Home Secretary to keep the boys locked up for life. In England the age of criminal responsibility is ten, but I wonder what does it achieve.

In my work in Liverpool I come into contact with a good deal of juvenile crime, and I see the same kids time and time again, going through the system, receiving different penalties, and ultimately one begins to ask does it work, because all that happens is that they grow up through the system and become adult criminals. Now in Norway there seems to be a totally different situation. In Norway, children under 15 can't be prosecuted, and rarely appear in court under eighteen.

In Trondheim, after the boys confessed at the police station they were allowed home, whereas in the Bulger case, Thompson and Venables were remanded in custody from the moment of their arrest. Rather than condemn and cast out the young killers, the Norwegians chose to embrace them back into the community. Their psychologists believed it was essential to help them have as normal a life as possible. The boys in Norway were looked upon as victims as much as Silje and her family, and were given immediate counselling, quite different to the Bulger case.

I remember the first time I met Jon Venables at the police station. It's interesting to me that the first thing the police looked for in England was a lawyer rather than a psychiatrist to accompany them in the interview, and there was no counselling involved between the time of their arrest and their appearance before the Crown Court at Preston nine months later. Beate rarely ventures outside nowadays. She's withdrawn into her own sanctuary. The two boys meanwhile are at school. One is doing well and is not considered a danger to others.

The second is still being closely supported by the welfare services. To summise, we must ask 'at what age should our children lose their innocence and take on adult responsibility? '. Ten like in England, or fifteen like in Norway. I don't know. Clearly their system works for them, the statistics prove it, and maybe there are some things they can teach us, but I fear the social problems in our cities are now so deep rooted that it's too late, we've missed our opportunity. By the time they're ten, many of our children have already lost their innocence.