This article originally appeared in issue 26 of the Howard League’s Early Career Academics Network (ECAN) bulletin, published 10 April 2015. Past issues of the bulletin can be downloaded from the Howard League website.

Gail Wilson, Up-2-Us

In 2013 the Scottish Government attributed anti-social and criminal behaviour to a small number of young people, that is, 5 percent of 8 to 17 year-olds. Research indicates that this ‘type’ of young person is more likely than not characterised by growing up in a chaotic family, experiencing care placements, and having poorer opportunities than their counterparts from less disadvantaged socio-economic areas (see for example, Social Research Unit, 2013). Their parent is often the corporate one, and this means statutory and voluntary support services have an important role in guiding their transition from childhood to adulthood. These young people most at risk of offending are often exposed to equally adverse environments growing up. However, research has shown they also have gender specific vulnerabilities. For instance young women are more likely to be at risk sexually (Roesch-March, 2014), to experience intimate partner violence, and to have mental health concerns which might trigger offending behaviours (Bateman and Hazel, 2014).

Gender is also thought to make a fundamental difference to responses to intervention and engagement in support (Gelsthorpe and Worrall, 2009), for instance, we are told that prison does not work for women as it does for men (Commission on Women Offenders, 2012). This paper seeks to further this assertion and focus on the population specific needs and approaches relevant to young women, who are some of the most vulnerable people in society, yet substantially overlooked within research and policy due to their few numbers. This paper will discuss the impetus for welfare approaches for young women facing the
Criminal Justice System.

High risk young women
There is a group of young women in society who are highly vulnerable and facing the prospect of locked accommodation. Typically, they experience challenges from birth, including a history of care placements, neglect, exploitation, exposure to violence and trauma, and loss (McNeish and Scott, 2014; Wilson and Edgar, 2014). This is often due to generational cycles of low income, poor family attainment, poor health status including reduced access and/or willingness to attend health care, and few available or appropriate adults for healthy emotional attachment or positive learning experiences (McNeish and Scott, 2014). These young women grow up with a lack of stability and opportunity to flourish in the developing years.

From a sociological perspective, this group of young women’s attitudinal and behavioural references are often people who have been and are similarly disadvantaged. As a result they often develop normative responses to anti-social behaviour and violence (Batchelor, 2005). Research has found that experiencing multiproblematic and disruptive family life is a stronger predictor for offending for girls than boys (Cauffman, 2008). This could be said to be large scale Social Learning (Bandura, 1977), a theory which is relevant to every type of ‘class’ and indicative of the relevance of money and poverty, and their impact on subculture. Young women comment that they struggle to gain respect and opportunity in wider society because of where they come from, and their background (Young women cited in Wilson, 2014b). There is often disparity between their ability and their ambition. It is therefore key that positive community role models are championed, and services exist to engage young women positively, to develop their talent, and to encourage them to access education, skills development, work, and positive hobbies.

Relational Theory (Miller, 1976) tells us that a woman’s ability to form relationships affects her self-concept, and that her attachment style underlies this. Research by McRobbie (2000) shows that young women who have experienced neglect, and have unsupportive families have less secure attachments than others. They may struggle to develop emotionally appropriate and adequate relationships, and this lack of positive social inclusion can diminish their sense of societal accountability (McRobbie, 2000). Young women (cited in Wilson, 2014b) count their relationships as being one of the foremost reasons for both desisting from, and influencing offending. Therefore relationship based support has great value as an intervention, to provide healthy and positive role models that encourage secure attachment, appropriate and safe relationship boundaries, and taking personal responsibility. Consistency and mutual respect are key in developing the relationship between the professional and the young woman. Encouraging young women to remove themselves from difficult, negative and often violent or traumatising relationships can take time, and they need to have built up trust and genuine rapport in other relationships before they consider taking that step (Burman and Imlah, 2012).

The Commission on Women Offenders (2012) has heralded change in how Scotland approaches criminal justice for women. In addition literature tells us that using a gender informed approach to intervention reduces reoffending (Clinks, 2014; Burman and Imlah, 2012). However, we want to look further than that, and acknowledge that gender informed practice also has positive effects on other presenting issues, such as wellbeing, education, employment, and relationships (Zahn in McNeish and Scott, 2014). The thread of thought in advocating for changes to the criminal justice system, is that women deserve equality, and to achieve that they need a system designed for their own needs, not the needs of men (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2013).

Women are a minority in the criminal justice system, and young women an even smaller population; and so are considered less pertinent to the reviewing of criminal justice policies (Prison Reform Trust, 2014). However, it is important that responses to woman are also age-informed, because stages of development in the transition to adulthood impact on engagement and motivation to desist (Clark, 2014). ‘As women grow older their gendered experiences change’ (McNeish and Scott, 2014, p. 27). Yet research and policy papers are rarely inclusive of the pivotal development of girls from childhood to adulthood. For example, the recommendations of Dame Elish Anglolini (Commission on Women Offenders, 2012) sought to rethink and redesign justice responses to women, but did not consider the requirements of young women specifically. Furthermore, when the Scottish Prison Service (SPS, 2014a, 2014b) published demographic surveys of the 2013 prison population, thematic reports were presented about ‘female offenders’ and ‘young offenders’ but neither made reference to young women. Government policy takes a strategic view on women, and young people generally, but there is also credence for gender informed youth policy.

The recent Clinks Who Cares? (Clark, 2014) paper called for champions of women and girls in the criminal justice system and within society generally. In Scotland, there is a Champions Group for Vulnerable Girls and Young Women which is summoned through the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice. This group informs the common strategies for supporting young women through welfare and criminal justice systems and is innovative is developing partnerships and approaches to practice. Such champion groups are relevant and important in influencing cultural changes, but often need wider coverage to engage and influence circles of people outside of the immediate interest group.

Current Youth Justice policy in Scotland
The Kilbrandon Report (1964) raised concerns over criminalising young people, and informed the creation of Scotland’s Children’s Hearing System. However, today this celebrated welfare approach is often superseded by the punishment ethos of the court, regularly encouraged by the media, and resultantly many young women are growing up in locked accommodation, graduating to prison, and living institutionalised lives. The welfare and criminal justice systems are designed to intervene in an effective manner, to reduce reoffending, maintain public confidence, and ensure fewer victims of crime (Scottish Government, no date). Therefore there is cause to re-visit our welfare and criminal justice approaches and ensure we are delivering on them for their intended benefit for young women.

In the Strategy for Justice (Scottish Government, 2012: 6), the then MSP Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill noted ‘we do not want to turn foolish youngsters into hardened criminals by jailing them unnecessarily.’ To combat this, the government launched Building Safer Communities and Reducing Reoffending policies to reduce crime by young people and support improved opportunities and outcomes at a local level. The existing strategies that the corporate parent and voluntary sector work to are Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC), Whole Systems Approach, and Preventing Offending by Young People. These acknowledge the effect multiple deprivation, poverty, poor health and poor attainment has on local communities and on the growth and development of children (Scottish Government, 2012) and promote ‘activities that prevent offending…a holistic, joined-up approach that reaches out from justice into areas such as health, housing and education’ as an early intervention strategy (Scottish Government, 2012: 6).

Social workers and voluntary agencies promote the importance that prevention and early intervention has in lowering the number of young women in the criminal justice system, and acknowledges the need for improved multiagency communication to support young women make healthy and happy transitions to adulthood, and not to prison (Wilson, 2014a). Youth Justice literature recognise that problems exist for girls at 16, 17 and 18 due to the curtailing of welfare based responses in place of criminal justice ones (Burman and Imlah, 2012). The switch in system severity from the Children’s Hearing to Criminal Justice highlights a policy gap concerning transitions of young women between child and adult systems and the lack of time given to young women to develop and mature at a pace which is in line with their history and experiences growing up. A re-imagined approach to lessening this transitional chasm will follow.

For those who do go through the Criminal Justice System, one of the aims of Reducing Reoffending is to ensure adequate social services are available throughout the journey. Through Care is available to young people, and in place to support planning for release and making successful transitions from locked
accommodation. However, it is only statutory for those who were Looked After away from home at the age of 16. Therefore the needs of young women in prison are met by a mix of statutory and voluntary services. In England and Wales the Offender Rehabilitation Bill 2014 means that ‘virtually all offenders’ will be given 12 month supervision in the community on their release, and probation services will be required to consider the specific needs of female offenders (Ministry of Justice, 2014). This safety net approach should ensure all individuals have the level of support needed to re-integrate into the community. However, young women can be difficult to engage, often due to their life stage, readiness to change, and the chaos of their peers and family around them. They respond most openly and consistently with professionals that they know and have built up trust with (Burman and Imlah, 2012). There is potential that the impact of this policy will see young women being further criminalised, if systems do not recognise the context of their lives in the community, and the likelihood that there will be times they do not comply to probation appointments.

Re-imagining Youth Justice with a gendered approach

The Scottish Government has put their policy spotlight on welfare, early intervention, and promoting young people’s rights. We know that over half of women in prison have been Looked After (Batchelor, 2005), which is why it is important that the recent Children and Young People’s (Scotland) Bill 2014 gave those who are in or moving on from care more rights. Continuing Care will allow young people to live, and return to care until they are 21. However this is initially restricted to those turning 16 in 2015, and will be rolled out on a yearly basis. Importantly, young people are entitled to After Care up to 25 years old, which allows them to ask for information and guidance, and which can provide monetary support. As it is, the new bill is very ambitious in a time of austerity, therefore the third sector will retain its role in continuing to fill the gaps of corporate parenting. Yet, there is also concern at the continuation of policies entitling only those who are Looked After at 16 years old. There is the potential that young people who moved on from Care before 16 are missing out on support which might make a big difference to their trajectories.

The government aims to divert young people to the Children’s Hearing System, but unfortunately the policy is not always utilised consistently. Children can be prosecuted from the age of 12 and most are dealt with in the Hearings System up to 16 years old. Young women tend to be removed from Supervision Orders at 16 years old and many already involved in offending tend to surface within the courts in the same year (Wilson, 2014c). Involvement in The Children’s Hearing System in itself predicts further engagement in offending, which raises questions about the effects of labelling and processing of formal intervention (McAra and McVie, 2013). However, that discussion is for another paper. Regardless, court and its remit is very different to the Children’s Hearing System, and the transition can be quite shocking (McTaggart, 2014).

This paper proposes that the Hearing System should have the remit for young women until they are at least 18 years old, and that the Hearing system should utilise intensive community services instead of using secure accommodation for punishment. If this happened there would be fewer young women institutionalised, and it would potentially prevent criminalisation in later life, by giving young women more time to grow out of low level offending, achieve goals so that offending no longer has any value to them, stabilise relationships so that they want to live in the community, and promote readiness to engage with mental health support.

Young women’s offending
Rates of youth offending have been on a downward trajectory in Scotland: between 2008 and 2013 they decreased by 45 per cent (Lightowler, Orr and Vaswani, 2014). However, young women are arrested for exactly the same crimes as they were 40 years ago.1 The same societal, historical and lifestyle factors have remained common to young women who become entangled in the criminal justice system since the 1970s.2

Research tells us that young women who offend have common backgrounds and are often victims and survivors of crime themselves. Batchelor (2005) reported that three quarters of young women she interviewed in Cornton Vale said they had been through the children’s hearing system. A survey by SPS (2014a), showed that three in ten (30 percent) female prisoners had been in care as a child, while Arens (2015) noted that at least 60 percent of young women at risk of custody have been in care.

Girls’ offending is overwhelmingly low level and non-violent (Burman and Batchelor, 2009). The most common crimes committed are breaches of orders, breaches of the peace, drunk and disorderly, possession of drugs and assault. Academics note that motivation for offending is likely a result of excitement seeking, self protection, or to achieve status, and is often committed under the influence of alcohol, drugs and poor mental wellbeing (McVie, Fraser, Burman and Batchelor, 2010). Girls are normally charged with more than one offence on arrest, in relation to their chaos and intoxication, and are on average sentenced to six months in prison (Wilson, 2014c). Individuals released from short prison sentences have a much higher number of reconvictions on average than those given community sentences (Scottish Government, 2014). In 2013, 30 percent of a sample of young women serving sentences in HMP Cornton Vale were re-remanded or re-sentenced within the year, and six percent were back in prison more than twice in the year (Wilson, 2014c). Remand can cause the same disruptions and devastation as sentences, with jobs lost, families separated, and housing terminated. Girls can be remanded from a few days to a number of months, and only about 30 percent of women receive custodial sentences (Commission on Women Offenders, 2012).

The New Economics Foundation (2012) demonstrated that the investment of £1 in alternative non-prison based sentencing for women generated a return of £14, while a six month prison sentence costs £16,186 based on Prison Service’s 2011/12 annual estimate (cited in Howard League Scotland, 2014). The figures show that community sentencing is more financially viable than prison, it also reduces the pressure which prison can create and allows women to rehabilitate in the community, and to face their problems in the most relevant place. The government have recently scrapped plans to build HMP Inverclyde for around £75 million. It is hoped that this will encourage discussions and generate a motion towards intensive community supports for young women, with the availability of small, local prisons for the 35 per cent of women in prison for violent offences (Scottish Government in Soroptimist International, 2013).

Views on the criminal justice system
Research has been carried out that suggests girls are generally not deterred by prison: ‘when you’re young you don’t care, prison doesn’t bother you’ (Young woman cited in Wilson, 2014b). Prison can sometimes even provide girls with a more stable ‘home’ life than they are used to. It is relatively safe and sociable if you have friends, it allows girls to rehabilitate from drugs, and gives them an opportunity to work and learn. Girls who grow up in secure accommodation can also experience these benefits plus additional psychological and wellbeing therapies. These positive outcomes however, are only tangible in these environments. Any benefits overwhelmingly disappear once girls and young women are liberated. This is because the communities and homes that girls go back to do not change in the time that they do, meaning any kind of rehabilitative work will have little long-term effect if it is not continued into the community (Dyer, 2014). A young woman who used the Time for Change project 3 said;

with young people in prison, a lot become institutionalised, they’re lost without the structure and stability. They don’t know how to do simple things like get a post office card because in prison everything is done for you
(Interview from Wilson, 2013).

Remaining in the community to serve a criminal justice punishment means a young woman is in an environment where she can engage in her community through pro-social rehabilitative opportunities and can readjust her social norms in a permanent environment. Research has found that young women felt that they had more to gain from remaining in the community and noted they would comply to orders when they had something to lose, such as a relationship, college, a job, or the care of their children (Wilson, 2014b). The girls with these views tended to be older. However, the resounding impression of community payback schemes is that they ‘can get you into a routine but it doesn’t teach you anything.’

Young women’s opinions on prison and community alternatives appeared to vary based on their stage of life. This lends some evidence to the school of thought which promotes the theory of adolescent limited offending (Moffitt, 1993). However, due to their life experiences, these young women tend to need intensive, trauma informed support in order to get to grips with the deep rooted triggers and causes of their attitudes, behaviours and offending. It is much more relevant to deliver this support in a community based environment, because young women can learn to adapt and use strategies from day one and not have to start all over again when they come out of prison.

As part of Through Care policies the corporate parent and voluntary services support young women to engage in the community on release from secure accommodation and prison, they help them to find and maintain accommodation, support them to address their use of alcohol and substances, and interact with friends and family in a way that is healthy and helpful. Academic literature considers that maturity, the taking on of adult responsibility, and re-construction of social norms are the key influencing factors in desistance. Importantly, women often want to be seen as desisting, most likely as result of the influence of gender norms (McNeill, 2002).

Finding work or education is often a very stabilising factor in desistance. With reference to employment in particular, young women are often inhibited by their criminal records in terms of moving forward and contributing to society. A young woman who used the Time for Change project commented that

my criminal record makes it really difficult to get a job, they discriminate against you, and so I have less opportunities. As I get older how am I supposed to get a good job? I can’t even get a job in a call centre
(Interview appears in Wilson, 2013).

In Scotland, an offence can be ‘spent’ from between 6 months and 10 years and reforms to disclosure policies are being considered as part of Reducing Reoffending. Reforms in England and Wales have reduced such lengthy rehabilitation periods in line with supporting people to move on from their past as quickly as possible (Unlock, 2014). Supporting young women to have equal access to employment is vital to prevent a situation where their only options are unskilled work or benefits. It is also important that they feel they have options to stop the impoverishment of dreams and attainment. No Offence! are a voluntary organisation who have taken heed of the difficulties ‘offenders’ have in getting jobs and have developed a scheme whereby employers use a key symbol on their advert to subtly advise that they do not discriminate against people with a criminal record. Innovation like this will help young women to overcome the anxieties and social pressures of applying for work. Alternatively, Lord Carlile has advocated for absolution of the records of young people who desist at the age of 18 in order to give them a clean slate for adulthood (BBC News, 2014).

Even more radically, this paper proposes that young women aged up to 21 and committing low level offences should be diverted from criminal justice in the first instance. The criminal justice system is rarely a deterrent to this group, who have grown up surrounded by family members and peers going through the courts and to prison, and does not often target the problems causing the offending in the first place. When targeted support is provided through the courts, the conditions of the orders are such that further criminalisation is highly likely.

Desistance is dependent on holistic approaches to young women and in order to help a young woman move on from chaos, we need to provide the environment for her to flourish. This is about bringing equality to our welfare and criminal justice systems, and not assuming that what works to rehabilitate young men will work for young women.

Concluding remarks
The Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service (McConnell, 2014) re-imagines the criminal justice system as a partnership of agencies and the community working together to support individuals. He imagines the liberation of individuals at the prison gate as the passing place to re-stating societal equality. This is something to aspire to for those already in the system. Supporting the integration of young women into our communities involves us listening to their stories, understanding the context to their lives and sharing in the corporate responsibility to care instead of judge.

This paper intended to advocate for a continually overlooked population of extremely high risk and vulnerable young women in Scotland. It has proposed a reimagined age and gender informed version of welfare approaches and youth justice which will protect young women from graduating into the prison system, and perhaps even the criminal justice system at all.

The paper recommends the following;

  • A re-imagined system which statutorily strives to keep non-violent young women out of prison using intensive community support and services.
  • The provisions under the Children and Young Peoples Bill 2014 to be realised and their powers extended to include young people who left care before the age of 16.
  • The powers of the Children’s Reporter to be extended to keep young women protected by the welfare system until they are 18.
  • More comprehensive Through Care support to all young women leaving prison, which ensures they have safe and appropriate accommodation, support with the job centre or applying to further education, and a positive community activity.
  • Practice guidance to be developed which cites intensive, relationship based, trauma informed, and age centred approaches to work with young women.
  • Better and more challenging opportunities for disadvantaged young women.
  • Fairer spending, cuts and taxation by government to encourage social equality.
  • Ring-fenced budgets for age and gender informed projects.

About the author
Gail Wilson is the Research and Policy Officer for Up-2-Us, a charity that provides Accommodation, Care and Housing Support Services to vulnerable and high risk children and young people in the care and justice systems. Her position is funded by LankellyChase Foundation as part of their Promoting Change Network, to evaluate what works to support young women in or at risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. Gail has an MSc Forensic Psychology from Glasgow Caledonian University and BSc Psychology (Applied) from Heriot-Watt University. She is also an Honorary Assistant Psychologist with the IVY project at Strathclyde University, and volunteers with a local Social Work department.

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1 See video about building of HMP Cornton Vale in 1972 at
2 See Man Alive series episode ‘Gale is Dead’ circa 1970s. Available to view at
3 Time for Change project is an Intensive Service for young women in West Central Scotland. It provides 24/7, holistic support to vulnerable girls in the community at risk of, or transitioning out of, locked accommodation.
Please see for further information.


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