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On the 12th February 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was kidnapped from a shopping centre and killed. In November of that year, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged eleven, were convicted of his murder and became the youngest children ever to be convicted of that offence in England. They were tried publicly in an adult court. Both boys sat in the adult docks away from their parents. Judges and counsel wore their wigs and gowns. The boys were named and shamed. This case can be seen as a turning point in the history of juvenile justice, not only in England and Wales but in Ireland too. We learnt what not to do.
Today, in Ireland, the Children Act 2001 is the primary legislation underpinning our juvenile justice system. The Act provides a range of protections for juvenile offenders including anonymity, the principle of detention as a measure of last resort, the expunging of records once certain conditions are met and a mandatory probation report.
The most valued and often most controversial protection is anonymity. This came into sharp focus recently in comments on the killing of Ana Kreigel by Boy A and Boy B, the youngest convicted murderers in the history of the Irish State. Both boys were just thirteen years old when they murdered fourteen-year-old Ana.
This case sparked much public anger and following the guilty verdict, members of the public called for the boys to be “named and shamed”. Despite the provisions of the Children Act and court orders, pictures of the two boys began appearing on social media accompanied by their names and very inflammatory remarks. Threats were also allegedly made against them and their families. An injunction against both Twitter and Facebook was granted, ordering them to remove all material identifying the boys and to proactively stop any further material being published.
Later, ten people were prosecuted for the circulation of images and details of Boy A and Boy B on social media. The prosecutions took place in the District Court and the perpetrators were convicted and fined.
Some argue that communities and the public at large have a right to know the identity of juvenile offenders so people can be cautious of them as adults. They also feel that children should be held fully accountable for their actions and that naming them will act as a deterrent to criminal behaviour. But the importance of anonymity for young offenders cannot be overemphasised—however heinous the crime committed, the offenders are still children, many of whom enter the criminal justice system with complex childhood behavioural issues and multiple health issues (including mental health issues). It is common for these children to come from chaotic backgrounds where they are often themselves victims of violence, abuse or neglect, and are unable to satisfactorily thrive in society before they reach the criminal justice system.
Our laws have to recognise the period of childhood and young adulthood as a time of transition and profound change. Children are, by virtue of their inherent psychological and neurobiological immaturity, not as responsible for their behaviour as adults (Judge John O’Connor, ‘Reflections on the Justice and Welfare Debate for Children in the Irish Criminal Justice System’ (2019) 3 IJSJ). They are not fully developed and they have not attained full maturity.
The capacities of children and adolescents, in general, are influenced by a lack of future orientation, a lack of risk aversion, impulsivity and suggestibility. Children have been found to be less risk averse than adults and tend to weigh anticipated gains more heavily than losses in making choices. Children and adolescents tend to focus on the short-term implications of decisions and pay less attention to the long-term consequences. During the period of early to mid-adolescence, decisions are often driven by acquiescence or opposition to authority or by efforts to gain peer approval (Elizabeth S Scott and Thomas Grisso, ‘Developmental Incompetence, Due Process, and Juvenile Justice Policy’ (2005) 83(4) NCL Rev 793).
It is importance therefore that children are treated differently from adults in the criminal justice system and that we protect them by not disclosing their identities to the public. How could one think it fair that a child who may themselves be a victim of abuse or neglect, and who commits a crime and fulfils their sanctions as prescribed by the Children’s Court, be tarnished and affected for life because of the stigma of having committed a crime as a child? This stigma not only affects the child but may also affect their parents, siblings and extended family.
Because reports of court cases can now be read online for an indefinite duration, a person's offending as a juvenile could be discovered years later with a Google search of their name. They may have their employment or emigration prospects jeopardised even though they have become a law-abiding adult. Children should not be given a life sentence.
Further, with the knowledge that a conviction from childhood won’t follow them, juvenile offenders may also be more motivated towards rehabilitation rather than continued offending.
Lastly, the public shaming of one child or household ignores how our society is interconnected. The problem of children committing crimes is a problem for us all and is a reflection on our society. We should be more focused on the underlying causes of offending and introducing crime prevention supports and programmes rather than focusing on a “name them and shame them” perspective. Every child deserves a childhood and every child deserves a second chance, which without anonymity they can never get.