Child offenders need lifetime anonymity, says review

Door being shut in young offender's institution Image copyright PA
Image caption Reoffending rates of young offenders see two thirds of those released committing another crime within one year

Child criminals should be given life-long anonymity, a government-commissioned review has recommended.

Ministers are considering introducing a law to indefinitely ban the media from identifying young offenders.

Currently, anonymity granted to under-18s by the youth or crown courts in England and Wales expires when they become adults.

The Ministry of Justice said it will discuss the proposals "with interested parties".

If such a law had been in place when Robert Thompson and Jon Venables murdered two-year-old James Bulger, the public would never have known their identities.

The recommendations are part of a review into the youth justice system in England and Wales by child behavioural expert, Charlie Taylor, to reduce reoffending.

The report states that 69% of children sentenced to custody go on to reoffend within a year.

Mr Taylor says the current system "must evolve to respond... to the challenges of today".

Image copyright PA
Image caption Jon Venables (left) and Robert Thompson (both aged 10 at time of these photos) tortured and killed two-year-old James Bulger

Under current legislation, child suspects are granted automatic anonymity in the youth courts and are routinely granted the same if they appear at crown court aside from exceptional circumstances.

But once a child turns 18, their name can be reported.

The report says this "risks undermining their rehabilitation as their identity could be established on the internet even though a conviction may have become spent for criminal records purposes".

Instead, Mr Taylor recommends automatic anonymity should also be granted in the crown court and the reporting restrictions should last the lifetime of young defendants.

'A step too far'

The Just for Kids Law charity welcomed the recommendation, saying: "Being named and shamed for what they have done or accused of doing prevents them ever being able to move on."

Penelope Gibbs, vice chair of the campaign group Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said children must be given the "maximum possible chance of rehabilitation".

"There's good evidence that the kind of vilification that is associated with a child that has committed a very serious crime being identified, destroys those chances of rehabilitation," she added.

Mike Sullivan, crime editor of the Sun newspaper, said a new law would mean the judiciary would have the power taken away to decide whether naming a youth offender was in the public interest.

He told the BBC: "There are some children who have grown up disadvantaged or have committed extreme crimes and the point of the change would be to make sure the stigma doesn't carry on with them for a lifetime, so it's not a life sentence. I think most reasonable people can understand that.

"The difficulty is, if you have a teenage tearaway who is responsible for half the burglaries and is allowed to hide behind the shield of anonymity, at what point are you not informing the public about the potential risks and therefore failing them?

"The option would be taken away from the judiciary with these recommendations."

'Internet changed everything'

Conservative MP for Kettering, Philip Hollobone, told the Times "the public has a right to know" the identities of those convicted for serious offences.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, also hit out at the proposal, telling the Times: "The idea of a blanket ban would be against any concept of open justice and the public's right to know and is a step too far."

Mark Hanna, journalism lecturer at the University of Sheffield, said while a new law goes against the principles of open justice, the law has to balance the rights of juvenile defendants against the right of society to know who has been accused or convicted of a crime.

He added: "Arguably communities do have a right to know the identity of, for example, a juvenile who commits a very serious, cruel crime at the age of 16 or 17, or who is a persistent offender, so people can be wary of them as adults.

"But the internet has changed everything, because a report of a court case can now be read for an indefinite duration, and so a person's offending as a juvenile could be discovered years later with a Google search of his name.

"This could stop him getting a job, for example, even though he has become a law-abiding adult."

Mr Hanna, who is also co-author McNae's Essential Law for Journalists, said he would envisage that any new law would be worded to allow judges the flexibility to lift anonymity in the public interest.

The Ministry of Justice has said it would "discuss these proposals with interested parties, including the Home Office, media and youth justice interest groups in order to better understand the case for change and consider the appropriate way forward".

Earlier his month, Justice Secretary Liz Truss announced two new "secure schools" for teenage offenders.

The schools - which were among Mr Taylor's recommendations - will focus on maths and English and will also provide apprenticeships.

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