Fri 17 September 2021

Despite high rates of victimisation of young women offenders, survivors of rape and abuse are criminalised – and this is set to get worse under the new Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill campaigners warn

Up to 90% of girls in contact with the youth justice system may have experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse from a family member or someone they trusted, raising concerns about the vulnerability of young women offenders. 

Despite being survivors of gender-based violence, young women who have endured sexual exploitation are also routinely criminalised. This leads to girls facing severe sexual abuse being treated as criminals in need of punishment, not victims in need of help. 

The research by Agenda and the Alliance for Youth Justice is published in advance of a House of Lords debate on the controversial Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill. They argue that this legislation risks criminalising vulnerable young women. 

Two clauses in the bill are cause for particular concern. 

The first is a proposed increase in the length of sentences for assaulting emergency workers such as police officers, which could disproportionately impact black women offenders. 17% of the total offences leading to a custodial sentence for black young women relate to assaults against emergency workers.

Experts are also concerned about the proposed introduction of Serious Violence Reduction Orders, with two-year prison sentences for individuals who “ought to have known” that someone in their company was in possession of drugs or weapons. This risks criminalising women and girls who are living in exploitative and controlling relationships with men involved in criminal activity. 

Endemic Abuse 

Girls and young women in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly likely to be a victim or survivor of rape, domestic violence and sexual exploitation. 

Data from Agenda and Alliance for Youth Justice shows that up to 90% of girls in contact with the youth justice system may have experienced abuse from a family member or someone they trusted.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of 16 to 24-year-old women serving community sentences have been raped or experienced domestic abuse from an intimate partner. 

Violence against women is also endemic in gang culture – with girls involved in gangs experiencing particularly high levels of sexual violence, including multi-perpetrator rape. 15% of young women (aged 16 to 24) supervised by youth offending or probation have been involved in prostitution or sex work, with those involved with ‘older men’ or gangs particularly at risk of child sexual exploitation. 

However, rather than being identified as victims, young women and girls facing sexual exploitation continue to be criminalised at 2.5 times the national average.

Often, the offences victims are charged with are related to their experience of abuse – for example, nearly half of young women (48%) in custody have committed offences to support someone else’s drug habit. Young women in coercive and controlling relationships are also at risk of being criminalised having been pressured by male partners to hide drugs and weapons. 

Invisible Women

Girls and young women are less likely to be in the criminal justice system than their male peers – in 2019 only 2,709 young women aged 16 to 24 were being supervised by probation services, compared with 21,004 young men the same age. 

Of the young women and girls in the system, black and ethnic minority women, as well as care leavers, are disproportionately represented. 

The relatively low levels of young female offenders has resulted in a lack of focus and strategy to deal with their unique needs, putting them at risk of repeat victimisation and offending. 

The much-welcomed Female Offender Strategy, published in 2018, failed to mention young women; while the new Violence Against Women And Girls Strategy launched earlier this year only focuses on women in the criminal justice system affected by domestic abuse. This ignores the wider patterns of victimisation such as commercial sexual exploitation and coercion. 

Other initiatives, such as 2021’s Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, are gender and ethnically neutral and therefore fail to consider the specific vulnerabilities faced by girls – especially black and ethnic minority girls.

The lack of focus on young female offenders’ experiences of violence, mental health and care now risks them being further criminalised through the Police, Crime, Courts And Sentencing Bill. 

A decision to increase the sentence for those assaulting emergency workers has been criticised for disproportionately impacting on black young women. An assault against an emergency worker, such as a police officer, is the most common offence young black women are sentenced to prison for (17%). While no one should experience violence on the job, campaigners are concerned that the bill fails to recognise the vulnerabilities of young women who may be responding in distress to workers not necessarily equipped to deal with trauma.  

Niya, 23, described how her family had beaten her and “dragged me across the ground by my hair” when the police arrived. She said that the police “were all gathered around me, I think I would have reacted differently but they were all in my face after going through what I had just gone through”. She was arrested after she kicked a police officer. 

The introduction of two-year prison sentences for people who “ought to know” if their partner, friend or colleague possesses drugs or weapons also risks further criminalising victims of abuse and control.

Agenda and Alliance for Youth Justice argue that the new Serious Violence Reduction Orders “render invisible the impact of coercion in relationships experienced by many young women drawn into the criminal justice system, or at risk of criminal exploitation”.

This was the case for Razia, 23, who was arrested on drugs offences while in an abusive and controlling relationship. “Because I turned a blind eye to it, I was still sort of involved inadvertently,” she said. “Because I was in contact with him and because he’d been making phone calls from my phone… I didn’t recognise it and I just thought it was normal.”

As well as the arrest, Razia was at risk of violence from her former partner’s community. “When I got to court, my ex-partner and all his friends were there,” she said. “They were looking at me, making snide comments… saying ‘if you say something… It’s game over for you’.”

Agenda’s CEO, Jemima Olchawski, said: “The most vulnerable young women in our society are being driven further into a system that punishes them for their response to trauma. Once in the criminal justice system, they have limited access to specialist support and are left to deal with their entrenched and complex experiences of trauma, putting them at heightened risk of repeated offending.

“The new Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill risks criminalising young women, and particularly black young women, who are in distress and whose needs have not been recognised.”


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