Killing of child forces Britain to turn from other woes

February 23, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- As two children stood up in a Liverpool courtroom yesterday accused of abducting and killing another child, Britons found themselves obsessed about crime in their society, but also troubled by a broader array of doubts about their country and their collective future.

The murder of 2-year-old Jamie Bulger -- allegedly by the two 10-year-old boys who appeared in the juvenile court -- has sharply focused the public's mind on juvenile crime.

The killing has provoked anger and mob action. Six people were arrested yesterday after scuffles and attacks on police vans broke out as the boys were taken away from the court. The outbreaks were the third such eruption.

But crime is only the preoccupation of the moment in Britain. A week ago the unemployment level, which breached the 3 million mark, had, according to the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, "precariously balanced [Britain] on the edge of a major economic catastrophe."

Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, reflected on the rising fear of social disintegration caused by joblessness here and throughout Europe. At an Oxford University seminar, he said, "It is not possible to live with nearly 3 million in each major country unemployed."

In Britain, public morale in just about every area has rarely if ever been so low as it is today. A weekend Gallup poll commissioned by the Daily Telegraph shows that pessimism and despair are widespread and that people with hopeful expectations for Britain are very much in the minority, only about one-fifth of those queried.

How bad is it?

Almost half the 1,030 adults polled all across Britain between Feb. 2 and Feb. 8 said they would prefer to live in some other country. More than a third said they could not think of a single thing about Britain they could be proud of, not the monarchy, not the Parliament, not their political leaders.

The reaction from the political leadership to the killing of Jamie Bulger and the emotional groundswell it triggered came late, a week after his body was found. But it was tough.

Prime Minister John Major called for "a crusade against crime." He said, "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less."

Mr. Major's government proposes laws allowing courts to put children away at an earlier age. Currently it is illegal to confine children under 15 to what is called "secure accommodation," or juvenile prison. But a change in the law is promised and such institutions are to be set up.

Children involved in serious crimes are now placed under the supervision of local councils, or government. Some are paroled, others sent to a variety of live-in facilities run by the councils; some go to half-way houses.

The new measures are being drafted despite figures released by the Home Office that indicate that juvenile crime in Britain is actually decreasing. They show that the number of convicted or warned young offenders fell from a high of 264,100 in 1985 to 182,500 in 1991.

For its part, and in response to the intense feeling generated by the Merseyside murder of Jamie Bulger, the Labor Party has moved closer to the Conservative-led government in what some see as an attempt to steal away a part of the traditional Conservative issue of law and order.

Tony Blair, Labor's domestic affairs spokesman, also called for new and tougher laws to put persistent young offenders in jail, and to crack down on youth crime in general, particularly car thefts and burglaries, most of which are committed by people under 21.

The party set out specific proposals for handling truants, those who commit offenses while on bail, and for dealing with an array of juvenile crimes.

Labor also bashed the Conservatives. "The Tories have given up on crime," the party charged.

The response to the government's hard line has not been universally favorable, despite the passion spilling through the streets of the Merseyside communities. Many people who deal with young offenders warned that the steps the government proposes have been tried before. Jails for juvenile offenders, similar to those the government is prepared to bring back, were abolished about 10 years ago as ineffective.

Virginia Bottomley, the secretary of state for health and a former magistrate, reportedly cautioned her colleague, Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke, against putting much faith in juvenile jails.

Britain already has more juveniles locked up than any major country in Europe, according to a study published over the weekend by the Prison Reform Trust.

Trust director Stephen Shaw said: "Establishing new custodial institutions will only add to our already excessive juvenile prison population. And if history is any guide, the graduates from these mini-prisons will end up as adult prisoners."

As for the confidence of the public in such measures, the Gallup poll revealed a deep pessimism. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of those having a high level of confidence in the legal system in general has fallen from 58 percent to 36 percent.

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