Tomorrow it will have been 20 years since the murder of toddler James Bulger. Rob Allen reflects on the tragic case and its implications for criminal justice in the UK. He argues that the rapidity with which policy was made in the face of a national outcry holds important lessons for  contemporary policy makers, particularly in relation to the Government’s controversial plans to effectively dismantle the national probation service. 

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of toddler James Bulger by two ten year old schoolboys in Liverpool. Among its many consequences, what then shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair called “hammer blows struck against the sleeping conscience of the country” are widely agreed to have ushered in a much harsher climate of public opinion on crime.

Whatever its wider impact, the tragedy provides important lessons about the dangers of precipitate policy-making, not least perhaps for the present government’s plans to revolutionise the probation system. Three weeks after the murder, Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced to parliament that he would introduce a new custodial sentence, the Secure Training Order to deal with the ‘menace to the community’ created by 12-15 year old persistent juvenile offenders. The orders were to be served in new institutions to be provided through agreements with public, voluntary or private organisations that could demonstrate the ability to meet the required standards and give value for money. They would be different from anything that had ever been provided before.

Credit: Conservative Party (Creative Commons)

Working on secondment in the Home Office at the time, I well remember a conversation with junior minister Michael Jack during one of a series of visits to existing secure accommodation, hastily arranged to inform the implementation of the new policy. ‘I wish’ he said – or words to this effect – ‘that we had seen all this before we had made the announcement’. I can imagine Junior Minister Jeremy Wright saying much the same to his advisers as they troop around the Probation services his boss has pledged to dismantle. As with STCs, the introduction of payment by results and privatisation is being introduced on the basis of almost no research and in the teeth of professional hostility.

What was the result of all this rushed policy-making back in 1993? First while the policy was quick to announce, implementation was anything but and in a sense, short lived to boot. The first STC did not open until April 1998. Two years after that, Secure Training Orders were effectively scrapped, folded into a unified custodial sentence. Second, despite this, decisions made in 1993 have served fundamentally to reshape the juvenile custodial sector. Three further STCs were subsequently opened, despite much of the original justification for their creation being lost in the mists of time. As one consequence, the number of places in local authority Secure Children’s Homes has fallen by a third since 2000. Unit costs have proved somewhat cheaper than the Secure Children’s homes but the STCs’ chequered history hardly justifies Clarke’s promise that they would be different from what went before. Third, despite the potential role for public, voluntary or private organisations in running the new system, it is the private sector that has run them all.

Are there lessons here for the current probation plans? One may be that political opposition cannot be relied upon to last. In 1993, Blair described it as insane to set up STCs at the same time as local authorities were having to close some of their facilities for disturbed young people. The insanity is in fact what happened under the government he came to lead. As a member of the Youth Justice Board from 1998 I have to accept my share of responsibility too.

Given the far reaching nature of the probation proposals, there is a strong case for some kind of pause that goes beyond the short consultation which ends this month. What about a Probation Futures panel that could look objectively at the very serious concerns that have been raised during the consultation? Had such a body been able to give serious and impartial consideration to government plans in 1993, the history of custody for juveniles might have been very different.

This post was originally published on Reforming Prisons.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

Rob Allen works on prison reform in the UK and internationally. From 2005 to 2010 he was director of the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) at King’s College London, undertaking research on imprisonment and assisting prison systems to comply with international standards. He has undertaken prison reform work in Africa, Latin America and Asia.