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Criminals: are they born or made?

Criminals: are they born or made?

Criminals: are they born or made? And what about murderers? What about children who kill other children? Are they born bad or made that way?

February 12th 1993: the day the criminal justice system and the way it, and society, treated children and young people changed forever.

On this date, two ten-year-old boys; Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, abducted, tortured and killed two-year-old James Bulger.

This was not the first time a child had been killed by another child, nor as it turned out, was it to be the last. There was something about this case though that made the public demand retribution, demand harsher, more severe penalties.

The age of the two perpetrators was forgotten, conversations or questions which probed why ten-year-olds would carry out such acts were quickly quietened. The consensus was that these children had been born evil. The media would run headlines demanding readers and viewers to check if their child too had ‘the mark of the devil’. As was noted by many social researchers, childhood was thrown into crisis. The notion of childhood innocence was scrapped, and despite their ages, it was decided to publish their names and images.

Politicians started to argue that we must be tough on young people, despite what their home life may be like; in fact, we were told to ‘condemn a little more, understand a little less’. Therefore, the fact that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were classed as ‘children in need’ themselves, the fact that social services and the police were involved in their lives on more than one occasion, the fact that both had suffered one or more forms of abuse, did not matter. The idea that they had been let down by society was dismissed.

But what about the case of Sharon Carr, nicknamed ‘The Devils’ Daughter’? Sharon was just 12 years old when in 1992 she stabbed a total stranger to death in public, in broad daylight. Her victim was a 21-year-old woman and the attack was so ferocious and the injuries caused so severe, police believed the attacker to be a fully grown male. Due to this misassumption, Sharon was not convicted of this murder until she was arrested after attacking and trying to kill another person when she was 14. After the arrest, police found numerous diaries written by Sharon which documented her long-held desire to carry out such attacks with entries such as ‘I was born to be a murderer’. ‘Killing for me is a mass turn-on and it just makes me so high I never want to come down. Every night I see the Devil in my dreams - sometimes even in my mirror, but I realise it was just me.’

What, if any, are the differences in these two cases? Were all the child perpetrators born bad? Or were they made bad? Why was one case deemed worse than the other? Can we learn to work with such children and young people to aid true rehabilitation? Can we prevent such crimes happening?

These are just some of the issues we explore and discuss on our BA (Hons) Criminology and Criminal Justice programme at Wrexham Glyndwr University.

About the Author

Dr Karen Washington-Dyer

Dr Karen Washington-Dyer

Dr Karen Washington-Dyer is a Lecturer in Criminology. She began her career with Wrexham’s youth service before becoming a full-time mature student on the very course she now lectures on. After completing her degree, she went on to complete further postgraduate study and was awarded a PhD, ‘New’ terrorism and the implications for perceptions of Islam among different faith groups: A qualitative study in 2016.

She currently teaches on the BA Criminology and Criminal Justice degree.