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Thursday, 16 December, 1999, 13:43 GMT
The future for Bulger's killers

Freedom is getting closer for Venables and Thompson
A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that former Home Secretary Michael Howard was wrong to intervene in the sentencing of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson has fuelled speculation that the convicted killers may soon go free.

In 1993 the pair were sentenced to at least eight years in custody for the murder of toddler James Bulger - with the Home Office later raising the time to be served to 15 years.

With both now approaching 18 years of age, and having spent a third of their lives behind bars, efforts will now intensify to prepare the two for release.

Former Home Secretary Michael Howard
Michael Howard increased the boys' sentences
The rehabilitation of any prisoner is fraught with problems. However, with the high-profile of the Bulger case and intense public emotions it still provokes, probation officers and social workers face an especially difficult task in resettling the pair.

Harry Fletcher, assistant secretary general of the National Association of Probation Officers, says that a release and supervision plan will have to be designed from scratch.

"Because these offences are so rare, you have to have unique solutions."

The boys, who are in the care of social services rather than the prison service, will have undergone constant assessments by a panel of psychologists, educationalists and social workers.

James Bulger
The murder of James Bulger shocked the nation
It is up to these professionals to gauge whether the convicted killers still pose a threat to society. "The feeling is that they don't," says Mr Fletcher.

If the duo are deemed fit for release a "highly experienced, highly motivated and senior figure" from the probation service will be appointed to ease their re-entry into the outside world.

"There's supervision also to see that the risk assessment is correct," says Mr Fletcher, adding that the risk the general public poses to the boys will also have a bearing on their release.

"Individual steps will be taken to protect them," says Mr Fletcher.

These steps are likely to include the creation of new identities for the boys, as well as "pre-histories" which will allow those new identities to withstand scrutiny.

Mary Bell
Mary Bell 'disappeared' for nearly 20 years
Thompson and Venables are very unlikely to return to Merseyside, should they even want to. They will be relocated in another area, possibly even in another country.

Such elaborate operations have been put into effect to protect so-called "supergrasses" who have given evidence in high-profile court cases and to aid those fleeing Northern Ireland under threat of death.

Paul Cavadino, director of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, says the media interest in the Bulger case makes the relocation of Thompson and Venables more difficult.

"Because the identity and photographs of the pair were released at the time of the trial, their rehabilitation has been made much harder - putting them at risk of reprisals," said Mr Cavadino.

Even the release of Mary Bell, who killed two children in 1968, is less complex than that facing Thompson and Venables.

Bell, who was imprisoned at age 11, did not return to her family home in 1980. She instead chose to disappear, changing her name and address on several occasions.

Paul Cavadino
Paul Cavadino: 'risk of reprisals'
For the Bulger killers there will presumably have to be some provision made for them to have contact with their families.

This may even prompt relocation efforts to include the boys' relatives.

"There just aren't any comparable cases," says Mr Cavadino.

However, the Mary Bell case does offer an ominous lesson to those seeking to create a secure and stable future for Thompson and Venables.

In the spring of 1998, some 18 years after leaving jail, Mary Bell was again thrust into the media spotlight with the publication of a book about her life.

Swept into protective custody and the subject of court injunctions, Bell was forced to revisit her past deeds - confessing to her unknowing daughter the reason for their predicament.

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