Sunday, 14 March 2010

Twisted and insensitive?

Maggie Atkinson, the Children's Commissioner for England, is "twisted and insensitive." More accurately, she has offered an opinion on the James Bulger case that disagrees with those for whom reason is an affront to moral outrage. As a result, according to Bulger's mother Denise Fergus, she is "stupid," "owes James and me an apology," and "should resign, or be sacked."

Such comments are perfectly understandable from a mother who has lost her child. However, they offer nothing to any discussion on policy.

Atkinson raised the issue of the age at which children can be held responsible for their own actions in a court of law. It is an important debate which needs to be had, as evidenced by the differing ages of criminal responsibility in countries across the world. Belgium, Luxembourg, and most US states place it at 18. Texas, Spain, Japan, and Poland place it at 16. Many other countries place it between 12 and 15. Only Switzerland, Nigeria, South Africa, Scotland, and Sri Lanka place it lower than England at 7 or 8 years old.

Personally, I must confess that I do not know where I stand. At present, I am inclined to believe that an age for criminal responsibility cannot be set in stone and must be judged upon the merits of the individual case. The case of Silje Raedergard in Norway, who was killed a year after Bulger by two boys younger than Thompson and Venables, only highlights the differences in individual incidents.

An old report for the BBC World Service describes the treatment the killers received;
In Norway the boys were treated as victims, not killers. The legal age for prosecution stands at 15 and so the children were free to return to kindergarten within a week of the incident occurring.

The local community felt dismayed that such a thing could happen in their city and felt little anger when the two boys were given counselling for the following four years. Trond Andreassen was the head psychologist at the child prosecution agency in Trondheim, he recalls the meetings that he held with the parents of the local kindergarten:

‘We explained that these boys would start there and what we would do to keep everybody safe. The parents of the other children accepted this situation and a lot of parents thought that these children needed to be in the kindergarten and needed to be taken care of.’
Whilst the victim's mother offered her own opinions on the issue in the Guardian;
My five-year-old daughter, Silje, was killed by two boys near our home in Trondheim, Norway. It was a year after the killing of James Bulger, and the two incidents were compared in the press. In Norway, where the age of criminality is 15, the boys were treated differently. Silje was stripped, stoned and beaten, and left for dead. I do not understand why and I will never recover, but I don't hate the boys. I think they understood what they had done, but not the consequences. The boys went back to school, were helped by psychologists and have had to learn how to treat others to fit back into society.
One can agree or disagree with what happened, and the mother's opinion, as you see fit. However, there is nothing to be gained by suggesting that dissenting opinions are "twisted" or "insensitive" and should be censured. As Kenneth Clarke told the Andrew Marr show, "I don't actually agree with the children's commissioner, but she obviously shouldn't resign for expressing an opinion on a perfectly serious and quite difficult subject."

Chris Huhne went further, noting that "we have the youngest age of criminal responsibility in the whole of Europe, with the exception of Scotland, in England and Wales, and that there is room for a public debate about whether we got it right." Though understandable given what she has gone through, Denise Fergus's call for Atkinson's sacking only serve to stifle that debate and should be rejected out of hand.