A parliamentary inquiry investigating into the way in which girls are treated by the criminal justice system has reported that courts confuse welfare needs with a high risk of reoffending and as a result girls can face a harsher sentence.
The findings of a year-long inquiry into girls run by the All
Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in the Penal System,
supported by the Howard League for Penal Reform, found that girls are more
likely to be treated harshly by courts for certain behaviours which do not
conform to gender stereotypes. ‘Anna’, who gave oral evidence to the inquiry,
had been told by the Judge in court that it was unacceptable for a young woman
to fight. She narrowly avoided a prison sentence thanks to an intensive fostering
scheme run by the charity, Action for Children.
Girls are ending up in court for minor misdemeanours when no intervention is needed or when they could be diverted to other more appropriate services. A criminal record is likely to blight a girl’s future, having a negative impact on her chances of finding a job or college place. This is so unnecessary when minor issues could have been resolved without resorting to the courts. The parliamentary inquiry heard from chief constables who are managing to resolve problems informally with resorting to arrest.
We know that many sexually exploited girls commit crime to try and
escape the men who exploit them or as a cry for help. The Howard League for
Penal Reform, the oldest penal reform charity in the world, has conducted
research on children in the penal system and legally represented children in
custody. Our extensive work with and for children has shown that the
majority of girls who do end up in the penal system have had troubled lives.
Evidence submitted to the inquiry revealed that one 14 year old girl was in court for minor theft. Her mother was an alcoholic and drug user and the girl had had a chaotic childhood. It is perhaps not surprising that her behaviour had gone off the rails.
She was given a community sentence by the youth court but nothing was done to address her family problems because it was not in the magistrates powers to do so. Her problems should have been addressed by children’s services; she was clearly a child in need.
The criminal justice system should not be expected to solve welfare problems. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal system found that girls were receiving harsher sentences because magistrates wrongly believed that youth offending teams would be able to sort out a girl’s problems. They cannot. In fact, the harsher the sentence, the more likely the girl is to end up in court or custody for breaching her sentence.
The police, prosecutors and courts need to think primarily whether it is in the child’s best interests to take the issue through the system. The only thing a girl leaves court with is a criminal record. The youth court focuses on the child’s behaviour and not the child. It has no powers to address the underlying problems faced by girls, including poor parenting, poverty, neglect and abuse.
Troubled and troublesome girls need support and recognition that their behaviour is often a cry for help. Punishing them for being vulnerable and in need is not the answer.
The report, Inquiry on girls: from courts to custody, was published on 24 July 2012.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, set up in July 2009, was administered by the Howard League for Penal
Reform and co-chaired by the Rt Hon Baroness Corston and Kate Green MP. Members of the steering group included Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, Rt Hon Elfyn Llwyd MP, Madeleine Moon MP, Baroness Linklater of Butterstone and Baroness Masham of Ilton.
The aims of the inquiry were:
• To investigate the decisions that route girls into or out of the penal system
• To look at provision for and the treatment of girls in the penal system.
• To make recommendations for reform across the social and penal systems regarding the treatment of girls.