06 March 2010


Whatever Jon Venables has or hasn't done, the fact that he has or hasn't done it just before an election means another blow to the idea that prison should be about rehabilitation as well as about punishment. His case will be held up as proof that rehabilitation doesn't work.

Crimes against children awake the most primaeval passion in us, especially, I guess, if we are parents ourselves. All of the instincts that we experience in a new way at the sound and feel of our own new-born children: nurturing, protecting, defending: are animal instincts, and can overcome our reason. I don't think it's fair to criticise James Bulger's mother for her relentless campaign to see her son's murderers locked up: she is at the mercy of her instincts, in a place where no rational call on her to change will get through to her. Forgiveness has to be considered and rational because it's not a simple transaction. My forgiveness of the person who trespasses against me marks the point at which my relationship with God is healed.

This is separate from the punishment that the trespasser deserves. My forgiveness of somebody else says something about me: their crime says something about them, and they must pay an appropriate penalty for their crime. In a humane and civilised society, the conditions in which the penalty is paid must be humane and civilised, but shouldn't disguise the fact that the trespasser is paying a penalty.

Separately again, there are both moral and practical reasons to try to ensure that people who commit crimes should not commit them again. But this is difficult to achieve, in part because it is a further expense on top of the expense of punishing the perpetrator, in part because the moral and practical reasons for carrying out rehabilitation are different, and most attempts at rehabilitation end up being merely confusing.

In the case of Venables and Thompson, it looked as though, for once, an expensive rehabilitiation had worked. In spite of the relentlessness of James' mother's campaign to have the two boys locked away for ever, their removal from a dysfunctional community, their separation, and determined efforts by child psychologists and educationalists managed to turn them into different people from the ones they were and would have grown into. So successful were the efforts that it became possible to return them into society. They were not normal members of society: new identities, a falsified life story, one eye always on their back; and I imagine that as men they are now fully aware of what they did all those years ago. That is part of how forgiveness works for them: they are forgiven when they accept the enormity of what they have done and accept the punishment, and the lifelong consequences of their action.

How many other success stories are there that we don't hear about? How many lives are turned round, transformed, because enough effort of the right sort is made available at the time when it can make a difference?

I don't know. But it will be a brave politician in the next few weeks who puts the case for increasing effort in this area, and the temptation for any candidate will be to throw something to the baying mob: Venables, maybe Thompson; maybe just more "prison must not be a holiday camp" (as though it is!), "life must mean life", and all of the other tired cliches.

Another step backward.

And also, a feeling, every time I see James' mother, of "there but for the Grace of God".

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