by Craig Jackson, Professor of Psychology at Birmingham City University

The case of Jon Venables, convicted for a second time of possessing indecent images of child abuse has again made the news. There are many facets to Venables that have led to the publics’ outrage and disgust at his behaviour. Venables’ abduction, torture and murder of James Bulger in 1993, along with Robert Thompson, when both aged 10, was incomprehensible. The impact this offence had on the nation has never truly been recognised or quantified, but it certainly changed how parents have looked after their children since then. What is sometimes called the “Bulgerfication” of parenting describes how parents became far more protective and defensive in their parenting in 1993 and this overnight change in safeguarding has persisted to this day, so powerful was the fear instilled in parents.

The early release of Venables and Thompson (on licence) after serving eight years for murder was met with public disdain. That they were given lifelong anonymity was not a popular move either, but the public grudgingly understood the reasons why this was done, if any attempt at rehabilitation was to be made possible. Venables subsequently had several scrapes with the law where he had put his identity at risk, and these were actions which proved costly for the Home Office, but which were also seen by many as being evidence that this was the behaviour of a repeat offender who was testing the boundaries of his licence. Venables was exploring the limitations of the criminal justice system and the licence programme he was prone to, to see what he could possibly get away with. Venables was a creature in a cage, testing the bars for weaknesses. He was caught posing online disguised as a women who was offering her child to be abused by other paedophiles in yet another attempt at testing what he could get away with while there were strict limits in place regarding what access he could have to computers and the internet. Given that he seems to have been persistently and compulsively testing the boundaries of what he could get away with, the question must be asked: while he was free on licence, what offences did he perhaps commit that did not come to light?

This latest series of offences make it clear beyond any doubt that this is a man who has exhibited a continued violent sexual interest in children on a repeated basis, and who has engaged in behaviours that have clearly demonstrated he was planning to go beyond his fantasies and attraction to children, and to act them out. This time he was convicted of possessing over 1000 indecent images and videos, with one third being of the most severe category. Some of the material Venables possessed involved babies and male toddlers. More worryingly, he also owned a manual described by the prosecution as a “disgusting and sickening document which falls far below and recognisable standard of morality” which was evidence he was contemplating actual sexual assaults against children.

The public has become weary of him being offered second chances, of him repeatedly abusing those chances, and then receiving lenient sentences when he is caught doing so. That Justice Edis made Venables the subject of an indefinite sexual harm prevention order (and confiscating his laptop) seems like too little too late. James Bulger’s father, Ralph, had asked for sentencing to be delayed in order for him to prepare and deliver a victim impact statement, but Justice Edis decided to pass sentence without granting this delay to James’ father. For many, this may represent a cold and dispassionate denial of victims and their relatives’ needs.

Venables also serves as an uncomfortable reminder to us all, whether we are experts or laypeople, that not all sexual offenders can be treated and rehabilitated. Some can be reformed, but not all, and he seems to belong to the latter camp. The prison system has recently demonstrated that many sex offender treatment programmes (SOTPs) do not work for a sizeable number of offenders. In some cases, undergoing SOTPs may make it more likely for offenders to re-offend upon release, and that such programmes are less effective than doing nothing. Such programmes try to deconstruct offender’ behaviours, and address the underlying issues that allow them to offend, and to ultimately confront any reasons the offender may have that reinforce their offending behaviours. In addition, such programmes try to induce empathy within offenders for their victims, while trying to improve the offender’s social skills and public functioning. This is a very difficult thing to do and it is far from an exact science; progress can be slow and is often accompanied by setbacks and complications along the way – even with the most simple and straightforward of offenders, offences, and a variety of psychopathologies.

Venables’ continued actions unfortunately serve to confirm peoples’ general biases and beliefs that sex offenders cannot and should not be offered rehabilitation, but this is not necessarily true for many offenders. What is perhaps more concerning at present however, is that the release on licence and rehabilitation of offenders as complex as Venables will be less likely to succeed if better treatment programmes are not used in prison, and if cuts continue to be made to the probation services and those we trust to monitor the behaviour of offenders when released.

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