Public representations and regressive effects

In his classic analysis of‘moral panics’ Cohen (2002: 1) observes:

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned (sic) by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people... Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten... at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy.

Similarly, Bottoms and Stevenson (1992: 23-24) note:

It is a fact well known to students of social policy that reforms of the system often take place not so much because of careful routine analysis by ministers and civil servants in the relevant Department of State... but because one or more individual incident(s) occurs, drawing public attention to... policy in a dramatic way which seems to demand change... the reforms would not have taken place without the public attention created by the original incident.

It is the extent to which reactions to specific cases have imposed ‘long-lasting repercussions’, regressive ‘changes in legal or social policy’ and/or ‘reforms [that] would not have taken place without the public attention created by the original incident’, that interests us here. To explore these phenomena, we examined -through the course of our research - a number of selected high-profile cases involving children and young people convicted of violent offences. We analysed the various media, public and political responses to the cases, the key themes that emerged, the discourses through which they were framed and, ultimately, the policy and practice effects that they imposed. Two examples - the Janine Balding case in Australia and the James Bulger case in England and Wales - are especially pertinent.

The Janine Balding case

Janine Balding, aged 20 years, was abducted, raped and murdered in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1988. Five homeless young people were subsequently charged with her murder: Bronson Blessington, aged 14 years; Wayne Wilmot, aged 15 years; Carol Ann Arrow, aged 15 years; Matthew Elliot, aged 16 years and Stephen ‘Shorty’Jamieson, aged 22 years. All of the accused had experienced problematic upbringings. Blessington and Elliot ‘suffered from sexual abuse, violence and homelessness throughout their childhood’ (Allard 2014: np). Wilmot was described as a 'hardened street kid’ and a ‘thug’, Arrow as ‘an intellectually handicapped 15-year-old-girl’ and Jamieson as being a victim of‘foetal alcohol syndrome’ and having ‘an IQ of 65’ (Allard 2016: np).

Following arrest, the only adult in the group - Jamieson - apparently made a confession to the police in which he claimed that Elliot and Wilmot had suggested to the group of young people: ‘How about we go out and get a Sheila and rape her’? It was a claim that subsequently became 'one of Australia’s most infamous crime headlines’, implying that the Janine Balding case amounted to a premeditated 'thrill kill’ (Allard 2016: np). Balding was reportedly selected at random, abducted and driven in her own car to Minchinbury, Western Sydney, during which time she was partially stripped of her clothing and raped by Blessington, Elliot and Jamieson (Arrow and Wilmot were in the car but were not involved directly with the rapes). On arriving at Minchinbury, Balding was raped again before being gagged and tied-up, carried into a paddock by Blessington, Elliot and Jamieson and drowned in a dam.

All five members of the group were initially charged with the murder of Janine Balding but, after weeks of deliberations and testimonies, Blessington, Elliott and Jamieson were each given life sentences, while Wilmot was sentenced to 7.5 years custody and Arrow was released on a good behaviour bond (each of the latter being convicted as accessories to murder). The sentencing of Blessington and Elliot, in particular, became a topic of extreme controversy due to their young age at the time of the offences; 14 and 16 years-old, respectively. Indeed, in sentencing Blessington Justice Newman acknowledged his young age, his previously ‘trivial’ criminal record and his good prospects for rehabilitation, but notwithstanding this he stated that the offences were ‘so grave’ that only a life sentence was appropriate. Further controversy centred Justice Newman’s additional recommendation that the crime was ‘so barbaric’ that 'none of the prisoners [handed life terms] should ever be released’ (cited in Allard 2016: np). The significance of this recommendation, in the case of Blessington, was such that ‘for 175 years since NSW was a convict settlement, no one so young has faced incarceration for the term of his natural life’ (Allard 2016: np).

Although Justice Newman’s sentences and recommendations captured the headlines, the injunction of ‘no release’ actually carried no legal force at the time given that every prisoner sentenced to ‘life’ had the right to have their sentence reviewed, and possibly amended, after 8 years. But the Janine Balding case invoked the ‘long lasting repercussions’ to which Cohen refers to above. Indeed, according to Allard (2016), it was the prospect of successful appeals that prompted the NSW government to introduce retrospective legislation, some of which was directed solely at Blessington. So, more than a decade after the originaljudgements the Crimes Amendment (Existing Life Sentences) Act 2001 was introduced that had the effect of converting ‘never to be released’ recommendations into ‘for the term of their natural life’ sentences. The Act carried immediate implications for Blessington and Elliot and its aim - to ensure that such prisoners would remain incarcerated until their death or mental/physical incapacitation -was starkly captured by NWS Premier Bob Carr in stating that the legislation would serve to ‘cement them in’ (Brown et al. 2016: 1329).

A legal challenge was subsequently mounted, and in 2004, the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal found that the Crimes Amendment (Existing Life Sentences) Act 2001 did not apply to Blessington because he had applied for sentence redetermination before the amendments were carried. The Government reacted immediately, however, by introducing emergency legislation to ensure that Janine Balding’s killers would never be released. The Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Amendment (Existing Life Sentences) Act 2005 met with little political opposition and was upheld as constitutional by the NSW Supreme Court. A series of further appeals followed but ‘in 2007 when the High Court dismissed an appeal against the retrospective laws passed by the NSW government, Blessington’s world came crashing down [as] the last legal avenue to appeal his sentence was closed’ (Allard 2016: np).

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