A long way back in the 1970s, I recall, if my memory serves me well, a TV programme hosted by David Frost, before he became a "Sir". It was a discussion about capital punishment, held with a studio audience composed of people with many differing opinions on the subject. It was rather like the current BBC programme, "The Big Questions", but more edgy and confrontational. One remark has never faded from my memory. During the lively debate, a Scots social worker who favoured lenient rehabilitation for offenders was asked: "What about the victims?" His reply, which I have never forgotten, was:
"Victims? What can you do for them?"
This remark outraged me, as well as most of the studio audience. One young girl, whose brother had only recently been murdered, became terribly upset, and had to be helped from the studio.
About ten years later or more, Granada TV in the North-West ran a similar debate. This time, the most memorable audience member was a lady who lived in my hometown of Southport, Lancashire - Joan Jonker. Her point of view was the complete opposite of that expressed by the callous Scot I mentioned above. Ms Jonker belonged to what, perhaps unfairly, we sometimes call the "hang 'em and flog 'em brigade". She repeatedly blamed the rise in violent crime on "the do-gooders".
To be fair to Ms Jonker, she was no armchair warrior; she ran a charity called "Victims of Violence" and was unafraid to challenge anyone of opposing views, however famous, even, on occasion, confronting hardened criminals. Besides this, she herself was a victim of mugging and burglary, and could provide much-needed empathy for fellow victims. However, like most people who use the term "do-gooder", she was very vague about what the word meant. She gave no clue as to how to recognise a do-gooder, either by dress code, age, political views or occupation. Nor did she ever define what a non-do-gooder was - perhaps a "do-badder"? As might be expected, Joan favoured strong punitive measures for offenders, with little scope for rehabilitation. Not only this, but Joan's admirable charity work might qualify her to be described as a "do-gooder". Now, there's an irony!
These are, I would contend, two opposing, if extreme, views about violent crime which are still prevalent today. Happily, most proponents of the first view are much more compassionate than the heartless Scots social worker mentioned above. They recognise that justice must be done, but assert the need for education and habilitation (many offenders are alienated from society from the first), in order to make criminals into useful members of society. I would welcome any information about the success rate of such programmes. Many people, of course, and especially the tabloid press, regard such treatment as mollycoddling and "soft treatment" for evildoers. This controversy is particularly intense when the issue of lethal youthful and children's violence is raised. A list of such murders includes the Mary Bell case, the murders of James Bulger and Rhys Jones in Liverpool, Lilian Lilley in Oldham, Jimmy Mizen (murdered 2008 by a youth of 19), Ann Maguire (teacher murdered, 2014) and, more recently, the tragic death of Bailey Gwynne in Aberdeen.
This is not the place to offer solutions to this abiding and complex problem, but a number of observations can be made here. Firstly, Mary Bell responded well to her treatment, is now married with a family, and living in happy anonymity. John Venables, one of the murderers of James Bulger, has not adjusted well to normal life after his period of treatment and has served time for child pornography offences; his accomplice, Robert Thompson, has not been caught for any wrongdoing. Ann Maguire's killer has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, despite being 16 years of age. This sentence has been criticised by some and welcomed by others - including me. This is because I know very well that there are some young school students who would find light sentences, such as that of the Bulger case killers, who only received eight year terms, something of an encouragement. Bailey Gwynne's killer has received a nine-year sentence for manslaughter. He probably will serve only half of his sentence, and that will be noteworthy to pupils of this type. Anyone who doubts the existence of such youngsters is being hopelessly naïve. The recent trial of two teenage girls for the murder of Angela Wrightson, in Hartlepool, is evidence of this problem. The double murderer, James Fairweather, who admired the Yorkshire Ripper and who committed his crimes at the age of 15, is another example of this type of young killer.
All of which leads to the question that I was trying to avoid: why are they like this? What makes children and adolescents into killers? No-one, still less me, can answer that. I can, however, point to people who are soon forgotten, and those are the relatives of the victims. Books have been written about Mary Bell, but none about those who lost loved ones because of her childhood crimes. The film maker, Julian Hendy, who runs the "100 Families" website (see "Links") has said that after his father was murdered in the street by a released mental patient, his family received no support from any agency. All the care and attention was lavished on the mental patient. All perpetrators get are fixed term prison sentences; the families of their victims get Life. These families, too, are victims.
"Victims? What can you do for them?"
Well, society and the media could care more than we do now. Commendably, some relatives of murder victims do not remain passive, but take positive action. Jayne Zito, whose husband was stabbed to death by a paranoid schizophrenic almost 17 years ago, founded a charity in his memory; Julian Hendy, as mentioned above, runs the "100 families" website which chronicles victims of released mental patients; the redoubtable Denise Fergus, mother of James Bulger, has campaigned tirelessly for justice for her murdered son. But, for the most part, relatives of murder victims suffer and grieve in silence. Some, no doubt, simply wish to keep their sorrow private, while others find that victimhood is just not newsworthy enough for the mass media.