Offending by girls
Whilst girls who offend or behave anti-socially are increasingly and routinely subsumed into ‘youths’, there is, at the same time, a selective but increasing visibility of some children and young people as offenders because they are girls and young women. Girl gangs have been a recurrent focus of media attention. They are the new lads or ‘ladettes’ at the level of minor offending and, most recently, in relation to drunkenness. In media reports, the implicit message is that girls are doubly culpable – of offending and also of not conforming to popular notions of femininity, of how girls and women should behave. For example, one of the online responses to a BBC Inside Out feature on ‘binge drinking’ and the new licensing laws ended, without explanation as to why one gender is being singled out, with the question: ‘Lastly, why do girls behave so badly?’ Two national daily newspapers have run similar stories. An article in the Telegraph on the latest complex report of the ‘European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs’ was simply entitled ‘Girls overtake boys in binge-drinking study’. The Daily Mirror began an article entitled ‘Bottle of the Sexes’ with: ‘In bingeing Britain the boys still outdrink the girls. . . but the gap is getting dangerously smaller.’ The ‘problem’ is not presented as the long-term trend of boys’ alcohol abuse, but the fact that girls are catching up with them.
More significantly perhaps, fears have been expressed that there has been a rapid increase in the number of violent girls. In the 1990s, these fears gave rise to headlines of the ‘Sugar ’n’ spice.. . not at all nice’ variety. More recently, a former US police chief is reported as saying of violence among American girls: ‘This is vicious, I-want-to-hurt-you fighting. It is a nationwide phenomenon and is catching us all off guard.’ This statement, and its reporting in the British press, indicates a significant level of social anxiety about the behaviour of girls.
That there has been a rise in reported offending by girls is not in question. In England and Wales, the number of girls convicted of indictable offences rose, with a corresponding increase from 11.1 per cent to 13.2 per cent in the proportion of girls in the sentenced population between 1992 and 1999. Increases can also be found elsewhere. In Scotland, the number of 17-19-year-old females who had a charge proved increased between 1987 and 1997, as did the number of referrals to a Reporter (children’s hearings) on an offence ground. However, statistics would suggest that this does not represent a significant surge in offending by young females. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) points out that, in the 1990s, the total number of girls who were cautioned or convicted for indictable offences fell by almost a third, from 33,600 to 24,800, and that the number of girls sentenced for violent offences fell in the period 1992-9. Further, the Edinburgh University Study of Youth Transitions and Crime found that, at age 15, boys are three times more likely than girls to carry a weapon and twice as likely to be involved in fighting, and that specific forms of the more serious offending – carrying a weapon, housebreaking, robbery, theft from cars, and cruelty to animals – are still much more common among boys than girls.
The overwhelming majority of offenders in this age group are, however, still males: the Youth Justice Board estimated in 2001 that girls made up about 18 per cent of the offending youth population. Further, the latest Criminal Statistics would suggest that the number of the more serious young offenders – of both genders – has now peaked in England and Wales. In 2002, a total of 3,713 ten to under-18 year olds, including 453 girls, were found guilty at the Crown Court for indictable offences. In 2003, the total was 2,790, including 340 females. For both years, the proportion of girls in these totals was 12 per cent. NACRO concludes that the rise in convictions of girls is, then, a function of reduced measures to divert them from court. In Canada, too, an analysis of official statistics would suggest that female young offenders accounted for only 7.3 per cent of all cases brought before the youth court at the end of the 1990s.
However, a major problem is that – until recently – there has been relatively little research in the UK since the 1980s on the experience and treatment of young female offenders, except in relation to ethnic minority girls and to gangs. Whilst the Research on Girls and Violence project based at Glasgow University has been important in the process of addressing that deficit, particularly as it is using research methods developed by feminists, research on the treatment of women in the criminal justice system is still a necessary source of insights into the treatment of girls.
A standard feminist analysis of adult offenders is that women become ‘invisible’ in policy and practice because of the preponderance of men, and that this invisibility works to their disadvantage. So, whilst policy documents talk in apparently gender-neutral terms about offenders, the generic term used may actually be applicable only to men. The resulting issue is whether the different structural and personal factors relevant to women should lead to differential – rather than equal – treatment if substantive justice is to be achieved.
What is not yet so clear is whether girls and young women are also invisible, treated inappropriately equally or discriminated against in the youth justice system. It is certainly possible in youth justice texts to find instances where it appears unlikely that the commentator is thinking about girls when he or she is referring to youths. For example, when referring to Operation Spotlight, Muncie explains that ‘after-hours revellers, groups of youths on the streets and truants’ were targeted in Glasgow in 1996. No gender is specified. Muncie goes on: ‘As a result, charges for drinking alcohol in public places increased by 2,240 per cent, dropping litter by 320 per cent and urinating on the street by 140 per cent.’ Whilst it is not unknown for the last activity to be engaged in by girls and women, our dominant image is of males. Further, the latest Audit Commission report on youth justice mentions differences in terms of race but not in terms of gender. ‘Males’ are only referred to, therefore, in the context of ‘black’, and gender is not an issue anywhere in the report. Likewise, the recent Youth Matters consultation paper on wider youth policy has only one brief reference to gender. This may be significant, given the conclusions of criminologists in relation to the treatment of adult women offenders.
Feminist criminologists have focused on differential gender treatment in the contexts of both sentencing and punishment. In relation to the latter, research has documented forms of disadvantage to female offenders in custodial regimes and in the provision of community punishments. As regards sentencing, research suggests that constructions of femininity and the ‘normal’ woman could lead to either more lenient or less lenient sentencing treatment. Two types of response can ‘save’ a woman from imprisonment: the medicalisation of women – the ‘not bad but mad’ approach; or the paternalistic approach – the chivalrous protection of the ‘weaker’ sex or the ‘social casualty’. Feminist researchers in the 1980s drew attention to the fact that women were two or three times more likely than men to receive an absolute or conditional discharge on conviction for an indictable offence, and three times less likely to receive a custodial sentence. More recent research has found similar discrepancies in relation to specific offences. For example, women are less likely than a comparable man to receive a custodial sentence for shoplifting and drug offences.
On the other hand, the ‘double deviancy’ of offending and acting in an unwomanly fashion could lead to more intensive punishment than a man would receive for a similar instance of offending, particularly if the generally less serious criminal histories of women offenders are taken into account. Carlen, for example, found in her sample of judges in Scotland that the women they sentenced to custody were those who, in their eyes, had failed as mothers: ‘Thus Sheriffs not only wanted to know whether a woman was a mother, but whether she was a good mother.’
Hedderman and Gelsthorpe more recently found that some magistrates still treated female, but not male, defendants as ‘troubled’ offenders to whom they ascribed different motives, even if, for example, men were stealing bacon and coffee rather than alcohol or items to sell. Consequently, they chose sentences to ‘help’ rather than punish them. However, their comparatively low use of fines for women (because they had no independent means) could mean that women were given a community sentence, a higher tariff sentence reserved for offences ‘serious enough’ to justify it. There was also some suggestion that the conclusions of earlier research are still valid: that magistrates do take into account the demeanour of women in court when making sentencing decisions.