March 2020 blog - Why a one-size fits all approach to supporting young women in contact with the criminal justice system will not work

By Maggie Bridge, Senior Policy and Engagement Officer at Agenda

Run in partnership between Agenda and the Alliance for Youth Justice, the Young Women’s Justice Project shines a light on the experiences of young women aged 17–25 in contact with the criminal justice system, campaigning alongside young women for better recognition and responses to their needs in policy and practice. Whilst there is little research and data relating to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young women’s experiences of the criminal justice system, our work identifies a clear need for more age-appropriate, gender-sensitive support, particularly from specialist services led by and for minoritised groups.

Young women in contact with the criminal justice system have complex, overlapping needs, with their experience of the system underpinned by experiences of abuse, mental ill-health, experience of the care system, exclusion from education and economic disadvantage. These problems often go unrecognised and, at worst, can be blamed on young women themselves. In reality, they are mutually reinforcing and compounded by a range of inequalities facing young women who are too often ignored, misunderstood or misrepresented.

Girls and young women face multiple and different forms of disempowerment on the basis of who they are. When they come to the attention of the criminal justice system, they can be treated more harshly than boys and young men – perceived to have not only broken the law, but to have transgressed gender norms. Black and minoritised young women, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) young women, face a ‘double disadvantage’ as gender intersects with race, often experiencing more punitive responses than their white counterparts. GRT women and children, for example, are more likely to experience poor treatment by staff in custody.

The Traveller Movement’s own research finds that roughly 1 in 3 (29%) GRT children in custody report experiencing physical abuse and 1 in 10 (12%) report sexual abuse by staff, compared to 9% and 1% of non-GRT children respectively. Where GRT young women have these experiences, they may feel particularly unable to challenge this abuse as a form of racism, with a further report  showing how GRT people feel compelled to hide their ethnicity to avoid further discrimination, with little recourse to challenge this.

The proportion of prisoners self-identifying as Gypsy in women’s prisons (7%) and amongst children in secure training centres is ‘strikingly high’ (12%), despite only 0.1% of the general population identifying themselves as Gypsy or Traveller in the most recent census.  Whilst we cannot identify how many GRT young women aged 18 – 25 are in the criminal justice system from data publicly available, this is also likely to be high, with greater levels of ethnic disproportionality amongst Black and minoritised young women (18–24) in prison than amongst the adult women’s prison population as a whole.

Despite this continued overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, however, the particular needs of young women experiencing racism whilst in contact with it are invisible in most research, data and policy – particularly where this might be broken down according to the distinct experiences of self-defined ethnic groups. This lack of attention translates to who gets heard, what gets measured, and what gets funded. Despite pockets of good practice, there is little specialist provision for young women on the ground and young women tell us that the services they access rarely feel as if they are “for them”, with one young women we spoke with describing “feel[ing] like you’re not being cared for” in mainstream services.

Where specialist support is available, however, girls and young women emphasise the value of this and are keen to see this developed and maximised.

“[The service I accessed for support] was quite specific to people of colour… I just felt so lucky… I think that is important, like just seeing them recognise that… people of colour might go through just some crazy stuff and might need that extra attention that isn’t really normally given. 

To prevent the needs and vulnerabilities driving young women’s contact with the criminal justice system being overlooked and opportunities to intervene being missed, the young women we campaign alongside are clear that an effective response to the challenges they face must start with recognition of the ways in which their age, gender and ethnicity – along with a range of other factors – shape their experiences of the systems and services they encounter. Without this, the problems and inequalities they face will become more complex and entrenched,

As the Young Women’s Justice Project moves into its next phase, we will be focusing particularly on the relationship between young women’s experiences of violence, abuse and exploitation and their contact with the criminal justice system, including where experiences and responses to this may differ according to ethnicity. If you work with young women aged 17 to 25 in contact or at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system and would like to help us grow the evidence-base around the challenges facing young women, please get in touch at maggie@weareagenda.org.

Maggie Bridge is the Senior Policy and Engagement Officer at Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.