Viewpoint – The significance of the Bulger case 20 years on


Professor Barry Goldson is Charles Booth Chair of Social Science at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology.

The significance of the ‘Bulger case’ in influencing the mood and trajectory of subsequent youth justice policy in England and Wales can hardly be over-stated and it was particularly important in three inter-related ways.

Youth crime

“First, it consolidated a powerful sense of anxiety concerning youth crime that was exploited by politicians and the media.

“Second, it provided a platform for the systematic demonisation of the two 10-year-old children convicted of James Bulger’s murder and, more broadly, a wider group of troubled and troublesome young people.

“It was not just two boys who were on trial; rather the shadow of suspicion was cast over childhood itself”

“On the 25th November 1993 after the trial had concluded, the pages of the mass-circulation tabloid newspapers were almost exclusively dedicated to its coverage. The case was hailed as the ultimate expression of a pervasive and deepening wave of moral degeneracy and child lawlessness. In this respect, it was not just two boys who were on trial; rather the shadow of suspicion was cast over childhood itself.

“Third, politicians promised to introduce ever-more repressive and punitive youth justice policies.

Punitive youth justice

“The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 was introduced which included privately managed child jails – Secure Training Centres – for the routine incarceration of children aged 12-14; the doubling of the maximum sentence of detention in Young Offender Institutions; and the extension of the s. 53 provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (empowering the courts to sentence 10-13 years olds to lengthy periods of custody).

“Twenty years after the tragic death of James Bulger, England and Wales is now recognised as one of the most punitive youth justice jurisdictions in Europe.”

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