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Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 07:38 GMT 08:38 UK
Bulger killers 'free within months'
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson are now 18
The killers of James Bulger could be freed early next year if the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, rules in their favour, former Home Secretary Michael Howard has said.

Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were given a minimum sentence tariff of 10 years after they were convicted of murdering the toddler in Liverpool in 1993.

This was later increased to 15 years by Mr Howard, but the European Court of Human Rights ruled in December that he was wrong to set the tariff, saying that only a court could do so.

James Bulger
James Bulger was only two when he was murdered
Home Secretary Jack Straw has referred the decision to Lord Woolf, who will announce what the correct tariff should be on Thursday.

Thompson and Venables have already been detained for seven years and eight months.

If Lord Woolf sets the tariff at eight years they will be eligible for parole in February 2001.

Mr Howard told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that recent comments by Lord Woolf led him to be concerned that the judge was planning to take a lenient line with the two teenagers.

"We don't know what decision the Lord Chief Justice is going to announce, but I was somewhat concerned by what he said in an interview in The Daily Telegraph yesterday," he said

'Rise in crime'

"He said above all, he wanted to try to achieve a sentence which would make the likelihood of a person leading a lawful life in the future greater and not less.

"That is a perfectly laudable aim, but I don't think it should be the primary consideration.

"It seems to me to indicate a return to the approach to the criminal justice system in which we put the criminal first, not the victim or potential victims.

"That was one of the factors which contributed to the remorseless rise in crime which we [the Tories] managed to reverse in 1993."

Mr Howard said politicians, not judges, should decide on the tariff served by a prisoner sentenced to life.

'Special offence'

"Parliament decided that, because murder was a special offence, it was the home secretary who should decide the tariff.

"That was a decision of elected members of parliament, answerable to the electorate. I don't think it should lightly be put aside by those who are unelected, unaccountable and can't be got rid of."

James Bulger's mother, Denise Fergus, still supports the 15-year tariff imposed by Mr Howard.

Thompson and Venables, both now 18 years old, are currently in secure units under the care of social services.

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16 Dec 99 | UK
Q&A: The Bulger case
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