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Wednesday 17 February 2010

What about girls?

One aspect of youth justice which is often sidelined in debate about reform is the situation of girls. Increasing numbers of young women are becoming caught up in a system which has been designed with the needs and offending patterns of boys in mind. There has been an overall failure to develop a gender-sensitive youth justice system, and there is a pressing need for this to change.

Though there does not appear to be a rise in their offending rates, girls are finding themselves drawn in the criminal justice system more frequently and are being convicted at a younger age. Responses to their offending tend to be more interventionist than for boys, resulting in larger numbers appearing in court. It is suggested that young women are being prosecuted for activities that, previously, they would not have, and the use of custody for girls has risen sharply.

These rising numbers, and the picture painted in the media of girls and young women as anti-social binge-drinkers, have created the popular misconception that girls’ offending and anti-social behaviour are becoming more prolific, more violent and generally spiralling out of control. The Government’s punitive approach to youth offending had obscured the particular vulnerabilities of these girls and young women.

While girls and young women caught up in the criminal justice system share many similar social problems to boys, there are also distinct differences which pose different challenges and which require different treatment and expertise. The experience of custody also affects boys and girls differently and inevitably their response to youth offender management. Girls who offend have often suffered from a history of physical and sexual abuse, as well as disruptive or troubled family backgrounds. Whilst there is no one route in to the criminal justice system, girls tend to have followed a general path from achieving little at school as a result of early disadvantage and social exclusion, leading to their subsequent disengagement, resulting in a lack of basic skills or qualifications, and a lack of hope for the future.

Young women offenders, as well as those at risk of offending, experience greater levels of emotional problems than boys, and many suffer from cripplingly low levels of self esteem. They experience extremely high rates of self harm, with levels almost twice that of the adult female population. Many have been in care, or have substance misuse problems, and they display higher than average mental health needs than the general population. Many who are taken into custody also suffer from the additional trauma of being separated, not only from their support networks, but from their own children.

By the time a girl or young woman comes into contact with the criminal justice system she is likely to have already experienced multiple problems in her life, and to have come from a deprived and socio-economically marginalised community. Taking them into custody clearly is not working to reduce offending. Instead it invariably exacerbates the problems they may be experiencing. These young women are vulnerable and victimised themselves, and in desperate need of care and support. With the right, targeted and personalised help they can be empowered to find another path and build a better future.

The average time between a girl’s first caution and being taken in to custody is half that of boys. This is part of the reason that early positive intervention is particularly critical for girls. There is a short space of time in which a girl can be diverted away from involvement in offending before she becomes formally involved in the youth justice system. The younger a girl is when this happens, the more damaging the effects on her.

Whilst much needed research has been done into the needs and experiences of adult women caught up in the criminal justice system, girls tend to have been subsumed under the category of ‘youth’ offending and not enough is known about them and what really does work. What we do know suggests that the more successful approaches include those that are specifically designed around the needs of the individual, are holistic in approach, involve the voices of young women and work positively with female peer groups.

As a society we are failing so many disadvantaged young women by not enabling them to achieve their full potential. We need to find new approaches to girls’ offending, as well as recognising the value of existing alternatives. If we are to move forward with a criminal justice strategy based on sound evidence, there is a real need to take in to account the voices and experiences of girls in order to create a system that is sensitive to gender and responsive to need.

About YWCA England & Wales

YWCA’s vision is that all girls and women, in particular those living in the most disadvantaged and deprived areas across England and Wales, are able to overcome the prejudice and barriers they face so that they can fulfil their potential.

YWCA provides support, guidance and learning opportunities for marginalised girls and women which are designed with their specific needs in mind. We also campaign with them to combat the discrimination and disadvantage they face.

Our women’s centres have evolved in recognition of the importance that girls and women place on being able to focus on their issues in an environment that is women-only and safe, and respectful of their diverse needs.

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