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Rehabilitating Evil: The Challenge of Children Who Kill

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We ought not to forget that, although they committed those very serious crimes, they were first of all human beings and secondly they were children

Senior Judge

Her name may have faded from view in the 21st Century, but there was a time when Mary Bell was the most notorious person in Britain, ranking right alongside Myra Hindley in the annals of female killers. Yet, despite the brutality of her crimes, Mary Bell doesn’t now lurk as a demonic presence in our cultural consciousness in the way that Hindley and Rose West do. And that’s partly because she was given a chance to wipe the slate clean. She was released from prison and allowed to begin afresh with a new name, the very model of successful rehabilitation.

Mary Bell’s first victim was an infant boy she throttled to death in a derelict house in 1968. Some months later, she strangled another very young boy in a patch of wasteland. Hideous crimes for which you’d think she’d languish in a cell for the rest of her life. But she was given a second chance for one reason: Mary herself was just a young girl when she killed those boys, not even in her teens.

Her young age meant she was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, and she was released from custody in 1980. Her identity has been fiercely protected ever since, but we do know she is now a grandmother. So, is she proof that children who kill can and should be allowed to start their lives from scratch?

Many will say: yes. After all, a young child who commits such heinous acts can often be a victim themselves. For example, according to various testimonies from those who knew the family, Mary Bell had been physically and sexually abused by her mother in the years leading up to the murders. Brutalised by her upbringing, this theory goes, she passed on that brutality to others.

But some take a less forgiving view. What if Mary Bell was (and is) just a psychopath? In court for her crimes, the young Mary was judged to have killed “solely for the pleasure and excitement of killing”. Rough childhoods are a hallmark of many serial killers’ lives, so why should certain murderers be allowed a chance of rehabilitation just because they had the audacity to start young?

If we take Mary Bell as the perfect how-to guide to rehabilitating a seemingly “evil” person, a few essential factors seem to be required. First, you need to provide sympathetic supervision from psychologists and care-givers. Second, and just as crucially, you need to grant the right to anonymity. Only by being protected from the glare of the media can a killer have the psychological serenity to evolve into law-abiding citizens.

This formula was directly applied to the killers of James Bulger – the infant who was abducted, tortured and murdered by two 10-year-old boys in 1993. The sheer depravity of the crime, the freakish sadism shown by mere children, didn’t just stun the public. It also caused caused forehead-clutching confusion about the best way to deal with the two killers.

Described as “cunning and very wicked” by the trial judge, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were initially handed indeterminate sentences with a recommended minimum term of eight years. But then the Home Secretary himself stepped in, to raise the tariff to 15 years. This was in turn scrapped by a later judgment, with the Home Secretary accused of “playing to the gallery” by enacting “institutionalised vengeance”. As one senior judge put it, “We ought not to forget that, although they committed those very serious crimes, they were first of all human beings and secondly they were children.”

During their years in custody, the boys were put under a magnifying glass. Their activities were recorded twice every single day, with updates delivered to politicians in London. They bonded with their care-givers, and were given advice on how to conceal their crimes to other children in custody. And they were furnished with new identities, completely protected from prying journalists and the threat of vigilante vengeance. The stage was therefore set for a seemingly successful rehabilitation, because, after all, “they were children”, and like Mary Bell they were deemed young enough to start their lives again.

Their offender managers even consulted experts who’d overseen the Mary Bell case, to gain their insights into how to ensure successful rehabilitation. They learnt that Bell had been initially shell-shocked by re-entering society, and found everything “strange and alien”, and lived in constant fear of being recognised. The challenges which Bell and her support system went through provided valuable lessons for he Bulger killers’ strange transition from captivity to freedom.

For many years afterwards, it seemed to have worked. But then, out of the blue, one of the killers was returned to prison on child pornography charges. Damningly for the probation service, it was revealed that he’d long since entered into a downward spiral of drinking, drug taking and petty violence, with his offender manager describing his flat as looking like a child’s bedroom, scattered with clothing and food cartons.

His re-arrest was a blunt reminder that – even with years of close supervision and psychological counselling – rehabilitation of a child criminal is a thorny, complex issue, and the reasons for failure are always open to debate. Whether it’s a question of the child’s mindset, the nature vs nurture debate, or working out how much time is needed for healing and redemption. One Merseyside detective who worked on the Bulger case said of the killers, “I'd hoped that they would be capable of being rehabilitated, but I never had the faith in the system where I believed they could achieve that by 18 years of age.”

Maybe, maybe not. The debate over the painful process of rehabilitation will continue.