Where do we send children who kill?
To hell? To borstal? Away so we don't have to look at them or think about them? Or perhaps we send them to yet another institution to further brutalise them – a prison for adults with soaring rates of violence and a rampant legal high problem. What would Jesus do? He of the 'let the little children come unto me'. What? Even the murderous ones?
The details Angela Wrightson's murder by a 13 and a 14 year old girl are truly horrific. At the heart of it a vulnerable adult and chronic alcoholic weighing just six stone was brutally murdered. The duration of the attack, the multiplicity of the weaponry, the cruelty and humiliation endured by Angela Wrightson make for incredibly difficult reading. It's hard to imagine what she endured for those five hours: I'm not sure I want to or that I can.
Pondering the image of the blood-stained shovel released by the police sickens me. Whoever did this must be profoundly unwell, inhuman, untermensch. They need to go away for a very long time, right? Judges take into account the vulnerability of a victim when sentencing in cases like this. I didn't know her personally, but from the outside, Angela Wrightson was living a pretty difficult, desperate and lonely life, which ended in a similar vein. Someone needs to pay for what happened to her.
If the perpetrators were adults, it might be easier to get my head around. To know what the appropriate response would be. Whatever the deeper reasons, the savageness of this crime calls for a custodial sentence.
But these 'snapchat' killers were children in the eyes of the law, young teenagers at the very most. But it doesn't matter because our age of criminal responsibility is the lowest in Europe at 10 years of age. But they carried out the adult act of killing someone, so shouldn't they be tried as adults anyway? Unlike the boys who killed James Bulger, these girls received very adult sentences of 15 years minimum each.
So, again I wonder, as a follower of Jesus how do I respond to this? If we had a Godly Justice System what would happen next?
In the seven years I spent working in prison, I learnt there was always a story. It might have a retina-burning, blazing veracity or be a shaggy dog type of affair. But everyone had one, everyone had several. Narrative is usually how we make sense of the world and our lives. We are loved by a God who knows us and our narratives inside out. God knew Angela, Girl A and Girl B inside out. God knew their stories and how they held their lives together. Jesus was an expert in looking under the surface and seeking truth and bringing the murky bits of our lives out into the light for healing.
What lies beneath this case then? What needs to be brought into the light for healing, to ensure that Girl A and Girl B, or others, kill no more? One death is clearly one too many. This is not about excuses, it's about prevention, understanding and restoration.
The older girl had taken drugs since 11, mixing them with drink. She'd grown up around violence. Her mother was beaten and she was one of four siblings, all with different fathers, who had all spent time in prison. She was taken into care, where she and Girl A absconded 18 times in the 30 days prior to the murder. A social services tutor described her as the "most volatile person I'd ever seen". She had tried to commit suicide four times during the case and had tried to do so earlier this week by strangling herself. No family member was present for her as the verdict and sentencing was read out.
Sentencing them, the judge mentioned that the younger girl was "below average intelligence" and was self-harming right up until the day before the sentencing.
How do we as society respond to children so damaged that they commit a sustained attack on a troubled, isolated alcoholic? Where do we send them? Prison is not the inevitable answer. The BBC Home Affairs correspondent, Mark Easton, tweeted in light of the case: "Since 2004, more than 200 children have been given life sentences in England and Wales. Since 1990, in the rest of Europe, it is 2."
Jesus lived a life of peace, loving people well, bringing the healing kingdom of God to earth wherever he went. As Christians, a little Christs, part of the gig is doing the same. In this instance, we may not be able to interact personally with the key actors involved in this tragedy but it prompts questions for me of how to heal our institutions when they are so damaging; how to heal the very structure of a society that allows damaged people to damage people and keep passing the damage on.
The Howard League released a report last week about the criminalisation of children in care. Despite accounting for less than 1% of the total population, a survey of 15-18 year olds in Young Offender Institutions, found that a third of boys and 61% of girls had been in local authority care at some point. God made us relationally and here is a cohort of people who have had their primary, parental attachment broken with devastating consequences.
This isn't the only case this week where the perpetrators of something unspeakable seem to have lived a lifetime of pain: the murder of toddler Ayeesha Jane Smith by her mother and stepfather is a grim read.
Obviously not every care leaver goes on to commit crime, but the starkness of the stats speak of a profound problem for us as Christians and as a society when considering those in care. As people of light and life we need to be involved individually and structurally in changing lives and systems so that the traumatised and broken don't just become wrecking balls. It isn't inevitable. We know a love that is stronger than death and we need to use it in the pursuit of righting some hideous wrongs this side of heaven.