On January 24th, an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) inquiry entitled the Use of Formal Sanctions for Girls in the Penal System was held in the House of Lords. The panel of Members of Parliament (MP’s) heard evidence from persons working with young women in the criminal justice system. Speakers included:  John Fassenfelt, Chair of the Magistrates’ Association; Frances Done, Chair of the Youth Justice Board; Gill Eshelby, Head of Service for County Durham Youth Offending Service; Martina Marougka, Research Associate,  co-ordinator for the IARS young women in the criminal justice system project; Lynne Abrams, representative of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime; and Krystal Sommah, volunteer for IARS.

Presenting the IARS project at the APPG

IARS’ young women in the criminal justice system project is a 12 month, youth-led programme that explores how police engage with young women aged 16-25 while they are in custody. The project is being run as part of IARS’ Big Lottery Fund funded umbrella project – London Youth Now. Particularly, this project seeks to understand if and how the mental health needs of these women are being addressed. Martina and Krystal presented the research project (explained below) at the APPG. Baroness Corston, whose 2007 report on women in the justice system was particularly influential on this project, was present to hear the evidence. Martina explained the research and Krystal went on to read quotations from the interviews she had conducted with young women. The Panel was very interested in the progress of the research. They agreed that obtaining information about the mental health needs of women is a vital step in preventing reoffending. Lynne Abrams explained that the Metropolitan police are very much looking forward to the results of this research. They hope the project’s findings will help to inform better police practice.

IARS Young Women in the Criminal Justice System Project

IARS’ Young Women in the Criminal Justice System Project provides valuable new evidence on how the mental health needs of girls in police custody are dealt with, using a youth-led methodology. The interviews are conducted by young, female volunteers who have been trained by IARS in mental health, criminal justice procedures and qualitative research methods. The project is funded by the Metropolitan Police Authority, now known as the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.

After the project is complete, a report will be published based on the findings of the interviews. A toolkit will be shared with the police that will enable them to better interact with the target group. Additionally, this community driven, evidence-based approach will assist police in identifying and supporting young women with mental health problems in their custody. The hope is that information surrounding young women’s mental health will be carried forward throughout the justice process so their issues may be addressed at all stages. The project will be completed by the end of March 2012.

Purpose of the Inquiry

This inquiry was convened to explore and address the unique needs of female offenders. Often, programs that are designed for a different demographic are used to address the deviance of young girls. The speakers asserted that the needs of young female offenders are different than the needs of both males and adult women. The personal and social issues that lead to young women’s’ deviance often fail to be addressed at an early age. Such issues include sexual abuse, violence, mental health problems and poverty. If a young woman enters into the criminal justice system, a continued failure to address such issues may lead to further criminality. The offender then moves into a much more serious and lengthy realm of punishment due to the number and increasing severity of her crimes. Frances Done referred to this progression as the “escalatory principle”.

Other Evidence Submitted

One of the major goals of this project is to ensure that once obtained, the knowledge about women’s mental health reaches the people who must know about it. Oftentimes, vital information regarding an offender’s health, background and current environment is already known. However, that information fails to be passed along to other justice practitioners as the offender moves through the system. Additionally, certain structural barriers exist which prevent the utilization of such information. Magistrate John Fassenfelt alluded to his experience with both problems. He described one case involving a fourteen year-old defendant.  It was only after sentencing that he learned the individual had the mental capacity of a five year-old.  This information was known by health practitioners, but was not contained in his file. This fact may have changed both the sentence and treatment options available to this individual.

Mr. Fassenfelt also spoke of his frustration with structural barriers, particularly the divide between family and youth courts. He referred to the case of a young girl he had previously dealt with in the youth court system. Despite knowing certain details about her life, he was not allowed to consider these factors because they were not contained in the report at hand. The family court reports containing such details were not entered into the youth court. The life circumstances of this young woman may have altered both her sentence and treatment options. Due to the structural divide, Mr. Fassenfelt had to make a judgment based on the details of her infraction only.

A Promising Case Study

Gill Eshelby spoke of the progress that has been made with young women involved in the criminal justice system in Durham. She explained that her colleagues at the Durham Youth Offending Service focus on the humanity and the potential of the youth they deal with. She refers to the participants as young people who offend, as opposed to young offenders. The former reference reminds justice personnel they are primarily dealing with children, not criminals.

Gill described how her team focuses on early intervention in order to divert youth from engaging or re-engaging in crime. In 2008, an initiative called the Pre-Remand Disposal (PRD) was implemented. This program involves young people who have committed their first offence. Skilled practitioners assess the needs of first-time offenders and seek ways in which to prevent further crimes. PRD’s in Durham resulted in a 79% reduction for first-time young female entrants, as well as a 63% reduction in girls’ re-offending from 2007/08- 2009/10. In 2010, this program was widened to include children who had received a police reprimand. Now, all pre-court individuals (Reprimand, Pre-Remand and Final Warning) receive the same assessment and offer of services. As well, the Youth Offending Service has created links with Sure Start Children’s Centres and other children’s groups. They plan to identify and help vulnerable children at a young age in attempts to completely divert them from involvement in the justice system.  A greater sample of the work the Youth Offending Service is doing can be accessed here.

The speakers of the APPG indicated that in order to prevent the phenomenon known as the “escalatory principle,” communication is vital. This involves communication with the offender, one’s own colleagues, and other justice bodies involved with the case of this young offender. When communication breaks down or is non-existent, the vital needs of the offender often fail to be met. The IARS project on young women hopes to inform effective practices which will ensure the mental needs of women are continually addressed. If mental health issues are adequately addressed when the girls are in custody, perhaps fewer will become so entrenched in the world of criminality.