We must stop overlooking young women in the criminal justice system

By Pippa Goodfellow, Director of Standing Committee for Youth Justice, and Jessica Southgate, Chief Executive of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.

“Young women… have difficulties – that’s why they’re doing the things they’re doing, that’s why they’re committing crimes…” Danielle, 21 

Girls and young women are overlooked in the criminal justice system – they are ignored, misunderstood and misrepresented.  

That is why at both the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ) and Agenda we wanted to find out more about what was happening to them and their experiences of the criminal justice system, from contact with the police and the courts, to probation and prison. 

Our Young Women’s Justice Project, funded by the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, aims to shine a light on the experiences of young adult women aged 17–25 years old in contact with the criminal justice system, including the experiences of girls transitioning into adult services as they turn 18. 

It seeks to make a positive impact on policy and practice for this group of young women. We are doing this by building an evidence base through our research, influencing policy and decision makers and empowering young women to use their voices to make change. 

We have brought together the existing data and research, speaking to young women about their experiences and talking to experts working with young women and girls. It is a comprehensive analysis of a wide range of sources that aims to paint a clear picture of the experiences and treatment of young women in the criminal justice system. This first phase of research has culminated in our literature review, which can be read here. It identifies some key themes about young women’s experiences of the justice system. 

It is clear that young women and girls are a minority both inside the youth justice system, which is male dominated, and the adult criminal justice system, where women’s prison and probation are adult-dominated spaces. Young women describe feeling that these are places ‘not for them’. 

Also key to understanding this group, is that the vast majority have experienced significant trauma and violence – up to 90 per cent have been abused by a family member or someone they trusted, for example. They may face mental health issues, often linked to trauma, and may use drugs or alcohol to cope; or they may be adapting to life as a young parent. These young women and girls are also much more likely to have experienced living in poverty or being in care. These vulnerabilities can be key drivers for their contact with the criminal justice system, whether that is being coerced into crime by an abusive partner or through trying to get enough food to eat. 

Their path to offending can be a consequence of the lack of understanding of these needs and experiences. Too often systems and services in the community that should be helping them fail to recognise or respond to the risks girls and young women face until it is too late and sometimes not at all. The child sexual exploitation scandals in places like Rochdale and Rotherham, where girls were criminalised instead of supported, are examples of this.

When girls and young women do come into contact with the criminal justice system the response can do more harm than good and can be retraumatising. This is illustrated by the disproportionate use of force, physical restraint and isolation against girls in custody. 

Some girls and young women in the criminal justice system face even greater stigma and discrimination, such as Black and minoritised young women who face racist stereotyping, and young women with experience of the care system.  

Being on the edge of adulthood, young women can find themselves at a cliff edge in support as they transition between the youth justice system and adult justice system. It is a critical point in their lives but too often services just fall away. 

While the picture can look bleak for young women in contact with the criminal justice system, change is possible. With the right support, this group of often traumatised and disadvantaged young women can thrive and lead happy, fulfilling lives. 

This involves investing in specialist support for girls and young women and also raising awareness and sharing knowledge about their needs and what works. But more broadly, we need a co-ordinated approach from government, to ensure young women do not continue to be an afterthought. 

There also needs to be better research and data gathering on their experiences and a commitment to ensuring their needs are recognised and responded to in policy and practice. This means a policy framework which ensures sustained attention to the needs of young women and a commitment to tackling the range of issues facing young women which are often at the root of their contact with the criminal justice system. 

The next phase of our work is to focus on some key themes the literature review and our wider research has drawn attention to. Specifically, we are producing a briefing on the transition between the youth and adult justice systems for young women. We will also be running an expert seminar on the links between young women’s experiences of violence, abuse and exploitation and contact with the criminal justice system. Through this work we hope to build up a powerful picture of the reality for girls and young women involved in the criminal justice system and what can be done to create lasting positive change for them, their families and the communities in which they live. 

For more information about the Young Women’s Project and if you are interested in attending the seminar please email maggie@weareagenda.org