Girls are being criminalised unnecessarily by courts, who have little regard for these vulnerable children’s welfare needs.
The findings of an inquiry on girls by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System and supported by the Howard League for Penal Reform showed that girls faced discrimination in a criminal justice system designed for boys.
The truth is that few girls commit crime – and the number of girls entering the penal system has fallen along with the number of offences committed by girls. In such a way, girls are victims of their comparative good behaviour, faced with a system designed wholly with boys in mind.
Additionally, girls are more likely to be prosecuted for activities which the police or the courts would have all but ignored in previous decades.
Research conducted by the Howard League for Penal Reform found that on average, there were 50,000 arrests of girls each year by the police yet less than a third of these resulted in a court conviction, suggesting that the majority of girls were arrested needlessly.
Many of the girls who end up in court will have serious welfare problems and need society’s help. They are likely to have experienced poor parenting, neglect and abuse and many will lead chaotic lives. However, youth court magistrates have no powers to care for these girls’ wellbeing, they merely pass sentence.
That’s why it’s so important to keep as many girls as possible away from the criminal justice system. The police do of course have the discretion whether or not to arrest them and some police services been very successful at reducing the number of girls arrested.
There has been an expansion in the use of pre-court disposals for children, where cases are settled informally with the police or youth offending team rather than in the courtroom.
Girls are more likely to receive one than boys, perhaps because their offence is less likely to be as serious. However, even pre-court disposals may still result in a criminal record, blighting children’s futures unnecessarily.
There is also evidence to suggest that girls are receiving more onerous and restrictive sentences in court because they have a higher number of welfare needs. The APPG heard evidence that girls were being ‘up-tariffed’ and welfare needs were wrongly being equated with a high risk of re-offending.
Indeed, some magistrates were treating girls more harshly if their behaviour did not conform to their idea of how a girl should behave. Sentencing decisions must be fair and proportionate. It is discriminatory to punish a girl more severely for fighting than a boy.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that the youth justice system in England and Wales focuses on the crime, not the child behind the crime. Too many girls face prosecution when it is not in their best interests and when almost any punishment they receive will only make matters worse, as will being branded with a criminal record.
It is not in the public interest to prosecute girls if it makes it more likely they will reoffend or if it lessens their chances of rehabilitation. The decision to prosecute should always consider the welfare of the child first and foremost.
We should not expect the criminal justice system to resolve girls’ welfare issues and it was not set up to do so. This is the role of Children’s Services who have a legal and moral duty to support all children in need in their area.
It is their job to give girls the support they need, when they need it, and ensure that staff have the training and resources to meet their specific needs.
This should ensure that fewer girls end up in the penal system, hugely increasing these girls’ life chances and bringing about significant long-term savings for the taxpayer.