Criminology, probation and stuff

Some musings on criminology with a focus on probation

Venables’ recall to custody

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Alan Travis argues that Venables’ return to prison is a setback for the cause of prison reform and rehabilitation.

His idea is an interesting one and although he doesn’t really go into much detail, it is based on the idea that the two boys who killed James Bulger were reformed through ‘psychotherapy, education, and consistent, strict discipline’. This doesn’t seem to me to be much like the prison reform and rehabilitation that most prisoners experience. Rather, his recall could be interpreted as a setback for psychotherapy, education, and consistent, strict discipline which are all relatively rare in UK prisons:

  • psychotherapy is rare (cognitive behavioural therapy is common but is a long way from true, psychological or psychiatric treatment);
  • education is also fairly rare beyond basic literacy and numeracy (as important as this is for many prisoners, ‘basic skills’ are not a panacea for the low educational achievement of most prisoners);
  • I don’t know much about consistency in prison but I do know that discretion is probably also useful in helping people change;
  • and strict discipline, while useful at times, is simply not feasible in large prisons such as those found in the UK. Moreover, don’t people need some care as well as control in order to flourish and grow as a mature and responsible person?

As Travis points out the nature of the recall will be crucial in terms of the public opinion towards this man. I don’t think I agree Travis’s assertion that it is unlikely to be a technical breach of his license conditions but we’ll see. If it turns out that Venables has committed a further offence (and, worse if it’s a Serious Further Offence- note the capitals- this is definitely A Bad Thing) then I would be more concerned about the ensuing moral panic than people’s trust in the ephemeral and somewhat unevidenced effectiveness of prison rehabilitation. The Bulger case, arguably, can be seen as the reason the relatively liberal Criminal Justice Act 1991 was largely repealed or altered, leading to Howard’s statement that ‘prison works’ and the inexorable rise of the prison population seen ever since. If Venables has done something anywhere near as serious as kill someone then we could be in for yet another (or continuation of the current) era of populism, harsher sentencing and punitive politicians, media and the public. And all this, according to Travis’ argument because one man, who received different treatment to other prisoners receive, committed another offence.

Because of this, I think it is right for Jack Straw to withhold the reason for recall- Venables has done his punishment for killing James and is now in the part of the sentence which is supposed to about public protection. If he now represents a risk to the public then he needs to be dealt with and if that means recall, so be it- I’ll let the parole board and probation service make that decision. If he has committed another offence, then this should also be dealt with, but as a separate matter and one which doesn’t need to be interrogated, sensationalised and used by the media and politicians. Similarly, any further offence should be dealt with by the relevant agencies of the criminal justice system. Should Venables’ history be taken into account? Maybe, but not during the investigation and trial- this would be a sure fire way to achieve a miscarriage of justice and is yet another reason for this information to be kept confidential. For once, Jack Straw seems to be making the correct decision.


Written by criminologyandstuff

March 3, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Posted in criminal justice

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