90% of female young offenders have previously suffered abuse, new research reveals

Nine in ten young female offenders under the age of 18 may have experienced abuse and nearly two thirds aged between 16 and 24 have been victims of rape and/or domestic abuse, new research by two criminal justice campaign groups has found.

20/01/21

90% of female young offenders have previously suffered abuse, new research reveals

A new research report conducted by a partnership between Agenda and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ) has found that up to 90% of young female offenders have previously experienced some form of abuse.

The report was conducted in response to concerns around a perceived “lack of gender-specific data, reporting and monitoring of outcomes for young adult women” within the criminal justice system.

“Understanding the routes through which young adult women enter the criminal justice system, and how they may remain within it, is crucial if this process is to be disrupted and opportunities for diversion are to be identified,” the report concluded.

The research collected data from a range of recent studies and found that 63% of young female offenders aged between 16 and 24 had previously been the victims of rape and/or domestic abuse, and that at least 15% had been involved in sex work or prostitution.

The report has found that young women’s experience of violence and abuse at an early age was a significant factor in an increased risk of future criminal behaviour, with the majority of violent crimes committed by young women stemming from a potential “attempt to re-assert control and identity in their immediate social context.”

In addition, the study revealed concerns around the “underreported or misrecognised” emerging prevalence the number of girls and young women found to be involved in ‘county lines’ activity. These warnings came alongside finding that young female offenders were more likely to report using drugs or alcohol to alleviate emotional pain or trauma.

Agenda chief executive Jessica Southgate called for more investment in specialist support for young female offenders and a “concerted and co-ordinated effort by the government to ensure girls and young women are no longer an afterthought.”

“The vast majority of young women in contact with the criminal justice system have experienced significant trauma and disadvantage. This can be a key driver for their offending, whether that is being coerced into crime by a partner, sexually exploited or using drugs or alcohol to cope with what they have experienced,” said Southgate.

“In spite of that, when they then come into contact with the criminal justice system, too often the response does more harm than good or is retraumatising, such as the use of force, restraint or isolation.

“We need to be doing a lot better at recognising and responding to the needs of vulnerable girls and young women in the community before we reach this stage.”
SCJY director Pippa Goodfellow added that more research of this “critical time in girls and young women’s lives” was needed to ensure that any new initiatives or services put in place were effective.

“Girls and young women who have contact with the criminal justice system are too often ignored, misunderstood and misrepresented. A minority within a minority, little is understood about their experiences,” said Goodfellow.

“We need a much clearer picture of what is going on at this point – better research and data gathering on girls and young women’s experiences – to inform better systems, services and support across all stages the criminal justice system. Putting gender high up on the policy agenda is long overdue.”

The report has called for “a gender-sensitive response” to young women in the criminal justice system that takes into account the emergent range of challenges facing this group –violence and abuse, mental ill-health, substance use and experiences of the care system as children.

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