Claire Perry is the Member of Parliament for Devizes. Follow Claire on Twitter.
Generally speaking, girls are much better behaved than boys. That isn’t some ludicrous Victorian stereotype, but a fact drawn out by crime statistics. Of 1,744 young people in custody, just 95 are girls. Just 22 per cent of offences committed by children are committed by girls. Moreover, of the few girls that do end up in court, the majority have committed low level, non-violent offences such as shop theft or criminal damage.
This has two significant consequences: it creates a youth criminal justice system built with boys in mind and it very often means that, for those girls who have ended up caught up in lives of crime, something must have gone very wrong.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, chaired by Baroness Corston has conducted an inquiry on girls and found that girls were being criminalised inappropriately by the courts when it would have made far more sense to deal with the girl’s issues, in terms of her welfare and behaviour, long before they reached the courtroom.
Using inappropriate and unnecessary criminal justice interventions for girls’ low level behaviour is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The criminal justice system should focus time and resources on those who have committed serious violent offences, not on the mentally unwell and sexually exploited girl who has stolen a lipstick from the local supermarket for the first time.
Important changes introduced by this government in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will give our police officers more discretion regarding the use of cautions for children and this should result in fewer girls coming before the courts for minor misdemeanours.
The Howard League for Penal Reform has conducted research on children in the penal system and legally represented children in custody. The charity has been supporting the APPG inquiry and found that many of the girls who do end up in court had led chaotic lives, experienced poor parenting, neglect or abuse. They have grown up in communities blighted by poverty and deprivation. However, magistrates in the youth court lack the powers to invoke care proceedings, even when it is obvious that the young girl before them is vulnerable and in need. They cannot even refer the case back to the family court.
They are wholly unable to use basic common sense to help these girls out of trouble.
John Fassenfelt, Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, told the inquiry about a 14 year old girl in the youth court, who had been charged with minor theft. The girl had a chaotic family background and her mother was drug and alcohol dependent. The case suggested that the girl was in need of care but the youth court magistrate had no powers to invoke a care order. The magistrate merely had to pass sentence so gave her a community order.
Failing to address a girl’s underlying welfare issues makes it more likely she will end up in court again. A criminal conviction can exacerbate problems instead of solving them. It can make it harder to find employment or a college place in the future. Rather than criminalising girls for minor misdemeanours we should be ensuring that they and their families have the support they need in order to turn their lives around and make a positive contribution to their communities. We need to intervene early and give girls appropriate support in order to reduce further the small number of girls who end up in the penal system.
The youth justice system should not be expected to deal with child welfare issues. That is the job of councils. Children’s services departments should be held to account in providing support for girls in need and should not expect the youth justice service to pick up the pieces once the girl has come to the attention of the police or the courts. Youth offending teams were not set up to tackle social problems but to co-ordinate youth justice services instead.
Overall, however, we need to deal with these troubled girls in a way that’s effective, compassionate and rooted in common sense. The majority of them have had deeply troubled lives and are more likely than boys to be diagnosed as suffering from childhood mental illness. For the very small number of girls who may require a period in a secure environment, they should be placed in secure children’s homes where they can have the support and therapy they need to address their problems. Prison for girls is not the answer and we should shut down all three prison units for girls immediately.