Young women in the CJS are vulnerable and traumatised

Work with Offenders looks at evidence from a new literature review

Agenda and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ) today published a new literature review as part of their Young Women’s Justice Project which shines a light on the experiences of young women aged 17–25 years old in contact with the criminal justice system, including the experiences of girls transitioning into adult services as they turn 18.

The report concludes that young women in contact with the criminal justice system are overlooked, ignored and misunderstood. Describing young women as a minority within a minority, the two organisations say that little is understood about their experiences.

The literature review was produced to map and grow the evidence-base around young adult women in contact with the criminal justice system and provide a foundation for more effective policy and practice by identifying the core components of an age-appropriate, gender-sensitive and trauma-informed response. Like all research, the literature review also identify gaps in knowledge in order to inform the direction of future work.

Key findings 

The literature review acknowledges that younger women in the criminal justice are a minority both in custody and the community because of their age and gender. Nevertheless, despite recent reductions in the total numbers of women in custody, younger women continue to enter custody on short sentences for “revolving door” offences – repeated, non-violent offences driven by a combination of needs, often stemming from complex trauma and economic disadvantage.

The report notes the continued overrepresentation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic young women, as well as young women with experience of the care system. Indeed, young women in custody are much more likely to have been in statutory care than their male counterparts – two thirds of young women are in this situation, compared to just under half of young men.

Young adult women in contact with the criminal justice system tend to have a greater number of support needs than young men, suggesting they face additional vulnerabilities which can lead to behaviour that is then criminalised. The report sets out the clear connections between these vulnerabilities and their funding committed by younger women; these include:

  • experience of violence, abuse and exploitation in relationships with family members, intimate partners and peers;
  • mental health problems and alcohol use;
  • exclusion from education;
  • experience of being in care;
  • early parenthood;
  • poverty and economic inequality; and
  • poor responses to young adult women with learning disabilities.

Interestingly, the report also describes how the support needs of young adult women are also distinct from those of older women in the criminal justice system. Young women tend to have more recent experiences of child criminal sexual exploitation. There is also a greater prevalence of mental health issues amongst young adult women, including higher rates of suicide compared to young adult men and older adult women. From 2002 to 2013, there were 1.51 incidents of self-inflicted death per 1,000 young women in custody (18–24) compared to 0.67 for young men. A higher proportion of young adult women also took their own lives during this period when compared to older women.

One key finding of the report is that younger women in contact with the criminal justice system they that they often find both youth and adult services not accessible or meaningful. Themes of trauma were particularly strong with young adult women telling researchers that professionals often fail to see the full extent of the issues they face. Indeed, where risks are identified, interventions intended to help are often experienced as both punitive and re-traumatising. This situation, combined with the fact that the use of force, physical restraint and isolation is increasingly and disproportionately used against girls in custody, provides a significant challenge for helping services.

Recommendations 

The literature review concludes that gender-sensitive support for younger adult women in contact with the criminal justice system should be characterised by an approach which:

  • centres young adult women’s lived experience and perspectives in the design and development of services intended to support them;
  • provides safe, young women-only environments managed by gender-specialist services;
  • prioritises non-punitive, trauma-informed, strengths-based approaches;
  • offers support which is available flexibly and is accessible over time and into early adulthood, including therapeutic, practical and advocacy support;
  • offers space to learn about and discuss sex and relationships;
  • focuses on developing and sustaining positive and mutually-respectful relationships with professionals and peers;
  • is delivered by agencies which young women see as independent, whilst working collaboratively with multiagency partners; and
  • creates opportunities to share knowledge and best practice across children’s and adult services, including between the youth sector and women and girls sector.

Interested readers can find the literature review here.