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  

SCYJ Director’s New Year Message

Our Director Pippa Goodfellow writes to wish our members, partners and colleagues a Happy New Year, reflecting on our work together through 2020 and looking ahead to plans for 2021.

Thank you so much to our members for everything you contributed to our work in 2020. We never could have expected how challenging the past year has been, but we have been impressed, encouraged and inspired by the work that all of you have done and what we have been able to achieve by working together to drive positive change in youth justice.

As we all step into 2021, we wanted to share some highlights of our work together over the past year, as well as some updates on what we have planned and opportunities to get involved in the coming months. There was a lot to include here – we’ve been busy!

Expanding our team

In May we welcomed Amania Scott-Samuels, our Policy and Engagement Assistant who has been working on membership engagement, our youth participation work and producing the youth justice bulletins. In July we were also joined by Millie Hall, our Communications Assistant, who has been working on developing our digital platforms and online presence. These fantastic appointments were made possible thanks to the generous investment in our team by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Millie Harris also took up the role of Senior Policy Officer on a part-time basis and we’re delighted that this will increase to full-time from the end of this month. More information about our staff team is available here.

In 2020 we also set out to expand our Board’s expertise, particularly in the areas of grassroots and community-based frontline work, communications, experience addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system and young people’s perspectives. In October we were delighted to announce and congratulate 7 new members of the SCYJ Board. Find out more about Shadae Cazeau, Gavin McKenna, Ebinehita Iyere, Hannah Couchman, Anne-Marie Day, Ahmed Ibrahim and Nadine Smith here. SCYJ Board Member Ali Wigzell, previously Chair of the Board, stepped down at the AGM, following many years of playing a key role in leading and developing the organisation – many thanks to Ali for her dedication to the organisation. Ali is a Trustee of SCYJ member the NAYJ and will continue to play an active role in our work through their membership.

Strengthening engagement with our members

We were delighted to welcome a number of new organisational members, including Abianda, The Traveller Movement, EQUAL, Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health (BLAM), Reach Every Generation, Solve: The Centre for Youth Violence and Conflict, Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services (CWVYS), LifeLine Projects and The Skill Mill. In addition, we have been joined by some fantastic Associate Members, individuals with specific expertise in youth justice: Hannah Wishart, Nicky Hill, Thirza Smith, Danica Darley, Luke Billingham, Áine Kervick and Kate Aubrey Johnson.

We have been really pleased that, despite the challenges of 2020, we have been able to welcome more members than ever to our meetings and share valuable discussions and debates:

In February we held our only face to face meeting of 2020 at the New Horizon Youth Centre, where the CEO Phil Kerry welcomed us, and we heard from Steve Chalke and Clare Wilson from Oasis Global about their plans for the first Secure School ‘Oasis Restore’ in Medway.

In April we heard from the Youth Violence Commission about their final report and shared COVID-19 updates from SCYJ members including: Association of YOT Managers, National Appropriate Adult Network, Youth Justice Legal Centre, Peer Power, Redthread, Juvenis, MAC-UK and Street Doctors.

In July members heard from Keith Fraser, Chair of the YJB and the Centre for Justice Innovation presented about their new research report. We were also delighted to have 3 of the Young Adult Advisors on Criminal Justice to support of the launch of our Young Advocates project. In case you missed it, you can watch the project launch presentation is here.

In October we held our AGM and heard from RECLAIM, the Manchester-based working-class youth charity, about the views expressed by young people regarding staying safe from violent crime, read more here. We also heard from the MoJ’s Youth Justice Policy Unit and began discussions about some key areas of the government’s Sentencing White Paper.

We also held a number of issue-specific meetings with key decision-makers, including a lunchtime meeting with the Youth Custody Service (YCS), a members’ meeting with HMI Probation on measuring outcomes for children, and an expert members’ meeting to inform recommendations of the report from a working party focused on racial disparity in the youth justice system, convened by JUSTICE. In December we held several membership reflection sessions, where members offered feedback and ideas for 2021.

Enhancing our external profile

Throughout 2020 we have been working hard to develop our organisation internally and to enhance our external profile, aiming to put the alliance in a stronger position to achieve system-wide impact and influence. Following an extensive consultation exercise, we have developed work to achieve greater clarity in communicating ‘who we are, what we do and what we want to achieve’. In July 2020 our members voted unanimously to change our name to the Alliance for Youth Justice. We have been doing lots of work to make this happen behind the scenes and in February this year we will be relaunching under our new name, branding, website and social media. This has also been an opportunity to refresh and enhance the organisational vision, mission and strategic objectives, and in 2021 we will develop and publish new long-term strategy in collaboration with our members, partners and young people.

Influencing national policy 

A highlight of the past year was working closely with the Justice Select Committee on their Youth Justice Inquiry and being invited to give evidence at their oral evidence session into youth custody and the impact of COVID-19 on the youth justice system. The panel, which included SCYJ Director Pippa Goodfellow, the Association of YOT Managers and Magistrates Association, raised issues of racial disparity, separation in custody amounting to solitary confinement and remand rates as issues in need of serious review, as well as the issues emerging during the lockdown.

We were proud to publish a new report, Ensuring custody is the last resort for children in England and Walesdeveloped with an expert group of SCYJ members, setting out proposals for new legislation to ensure that custody for children is only ever used as a genuine last resort and address racial disparity. We published a briefing Childhood criminal records: Undermining positive developments across youth justiceexamining how welcome developments in youth justice are being undermined by the current childhood criminal records system, strengthening the call for a widespread review. In particular, the briefing discusses the YJB’s priorities for youth justice, highlighting how efforts to improve outcomes in these areas are actively impeded by criminal records.

We responded to the Home Office consultation on Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs), working with an expert group of our members to develop our submission – stating our opposition to their introduction and concerns that they will exacerbate racial disproportionality and discrimination, increase tensions and further erode trust in police.

In response to the Government’s Sentencing White Paper, our Director and Chair published an initial comment, and we have been working closely with members and MoJ officials on the proposals. Developed with a group of experts from the SCYJ membership and specialist youth legal practitioners, we have submitted a response on Reducing the number of children remanded to custody to the MoJ outlining our position on remand and proposals for reducing remand to Youth Detention Accommodation (YDA) for children. We also developed a response with an expert group of our members on Reform of childhood criminal records, outlining how we can and should go further for children and calling for a wide ranging review.

Collaborating to push for change

We worked closely with the Youth Violence Commission on their final report and alongside a number of our members, we offered an Expert Reflection, considering what rethinking ‘justice’ for young people might look like.

We worked with partners on the End Child Imprisonment campaign to publish The case for ending child imprisonment’ – arguing the case for urgently closing England’s child prisons, warning that they are inflicting irrevocable harm on highly vulnerable children, aggravated significantly by the response to COVID-19.

SCYJ and our members have made a significant contribution to the Working Party on Racial Disparity in Youth Justice convened by JUSTICE, with a view to making positive, practical recommendations for change, seeking to ensure that children are not needlessly criminalised by improving the attitudes, processes and procedures. We will push for implementation of the recommendations, due to be published in a report later this month.

SCYJ and a number of other organisations have joined the Damilola Taylor Trust’s Hope Collective and Hope 2020 Campaign which aims to champion young people and their stories of ambition and hope in honour of the 20th anniversary of 10 year old Damilola’s untimely death.

We recently collaborated with CYPNow on a special report about recent youth justice research, highlighting publications The State of Youth Justice 2020Therapeutic Interventions for Peace and Living Through a Lockdown. The report details each study’s themes, key findings and important policy and practice implications.

Our response to COVID-19

Throughout 2020, we have been working with our members to gather information and insight, enabling us to highlight issues and make practical suggestions, outlined in this paper. We are committed to providing a channel for our members’ concerns, questions and suggestions to be raised with decision-makers. We have pursued direct engagement including regular conversations and briefing with Youth Justice Minister Lucy Frazer MP, the Youth Justice Board (YJB), Youth Custody Service, Home Office and Ministry of Justice officials, and the Justice Select Committee. We have also supported collaborative actions to raise issues with government and key decision-makers, including the YJB’s Voluntary Sector Liaison Group and sitting on the Special Interest Group on COVID-19 for the Reducing Re-Offending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) convened by Clinks.

Huge thanks to all members who have raised concerns, questions and shared ideas – this has enabled us to highlight issues and make suggestions to government officials on a wide range of issues.

Launching new exciting projects

Young Advocates Project

This year we launched our Young Advocates project, generously funded by Children in Need and delivered in partnership with Leaders Unlocked – offering young people between 14-20 who have youth justice experience an opportunity to become representatives for children and young people across the country as ‘Young Advocates’ for youth justice. Find out more about how the first few months of the project have been progressing in this update and about an event where the Young Advocates gave their first presentation to a group of youth justice experts here. Thank you to all those that were involved in the consultation, planning and recruitment stages, we could not have done this without you!

Young Women’s Justice Project

At the start of the year we were delighted to be awarded funding from Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales to work in partnership with Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, on a two-year Young Women’s Justice Project, to help us make a positive impact on policy and practice for young adult women (aged 17-25) in the criminal justice system (CJS). In July we held a seminar with over 40 experts from the youth and women’s sectors to explore the theme of transitions of girls into young adulthood, while in contact with the CJS. We welcomed presentations from Dez Holmes (Research in Practice), Lesley Tregear (SCYJ/AYM), Ebinehita Iyere (Juvenis/Milk and Honey) and Dr Claire Fitzpatrick (Lancaster University). We will be publishing a briefing on transitions next month and if you missed it – check out Millie Hall’s blog ‘Intersectionality: More than just a buzzword for girls and young women in transition‘.

Researching the impact of COVID-19 on the youth justice system

In November we were delighted to announce that the exceptional impact of COVID-19 on the youth justice system will be documented in a new partnership project between the SCYJ and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). The project aims to understand the unprecedented implications that the pandemic has had on the system and the vulnerable children it works with. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), findings and recommendations from the 18-month project will be shared widely with practitioners and decision-makers to shape policy and practice. For more details see here.

We look forward to engaging with SCYJ members to ensure that your expertise and experiences shape the findings and recommendations of the project.

What’s coming up in early 2021? 

We’re looking forward to our first members’ meeting of the year on Wednesday 27th January, where we will be introducing our new members, as well as holding a panel discussion Children’s rights in youth justice – challenges and opportunities in 2021 with Professor Barry Goldson, (University of Liverpool), Emily Frith (Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England) and Ben Byrne (Association of London Directors of Children’s Services).

A significant focus for 2021 will be investigating the impact of COVID-19 on all stages of the youth justice system – we look forward to working with our members and partners to examine the impacts and develop recommendations for policy and practice. We will continue to work with members on influencing the Sentencing Bill and feeding into various inquiries and consultations, including the inquiry into prison education. Next month we will publish our briefing on transitions of girls in contact with the CJS and will be supporting the Young Advocates to pursue their peer research activities.

Last but not least, in the first week in February, we will be relaunching as the Alliance for Youth Justice. We are very excited to share with you our new logo, website, social media and contact details – so look out for updates in the coming weeks in the members’ bulletin and monthly newsletter!

Celebrating the #DayofHopeUK with the Young Advocates

The Young Advocates project supports young people between 14-20 with youth justice experience to become representatives for children and young people across the country as ‘Young Advocates’ for youth justice improvement. The project is generously funded by Children in Need and in partnership with Leaders Unlocked.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the tragic killing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, the Damilola Taylor Trust set up the #Hope2020 campaign, to encourage the sharing and recognition of the hopes of young people in the UK. The 7th December 2020 was also established as the first national ‘Day of Hope’ on Damilola’s birthday, to celebrate the hopes of young people from here on in.

We believed the #DayOfHope was a perfect opportunity for the Young Advocates to share their inspiring progress and reflections, in their first presentation to a group of SCYJ members and experts from the youth justice sector. The Young Advocates have been meeting in their own time with SCYJ, Leaders Unlocked and the Young Adult Advisors to discuss the priority youth justice issues that they will focus on throughout the project. In a virtual meeting, the Young Advocates presented their priority areas on the #DayOfHope to 20 youth justice experts, which is no mean feat for even the most experienced Zoomer!

In the presentation, the Young Advocates all introduced themselves and shared their motivations for joining the project as well as their experience of the project so far. This included their personal connections to the issues at hand, and the greater sense of purpose that has come through working on the project, especially during the lockdown period. The Young Advocates then shared details of why they picked the priority areas of stereotyping, education and warning signs, and jail, and what they intended to investigate in their research.

The response to the Young Advocates presentation was overwhelmingly positive. The experts in the audience agreed about the urgency of the topics chosen and expressed their enthusiasm surrounding the importance of having the Young Advocates on board as a source of learning and insight. There was an inspiring sense of collaboration between the Young Advocates and the diverse range of professionals in the meeting, demonstrating how essential it is to ensure our conversations around youth justice are informed by personal as well as professional experience of the issues, and a range of perspectives working alongside each other to bring about change.

On the #DayOfHope2020, there is no denying that we were all left bursting with hope and inspiration from the Young Advocates. We look forward to watching the project progress and the young people grow from strength to strength.

If you have a network of young people you think our Young Advocates should talk to as part of their research or if you know a young person you think might want to join the Young Advocates project please contact amania@scyj.org.uk.