Don’t let young women involved in crime remain the “forgotten few”
November 1, 2016
Max Rutherford, Criminal Justice Programme Manager at Barrow Cadbury Trust
Max Rutherford, Criminal Justice Programme Manager at Barrow Cadbury Trust, applauds the Justice Committee’s “landmark and visionary” report on young adults involved in crime, but urges policy-makers to take on board what it says about the treatment of young women.
Last week, an influential group of cross-party MPs published a “landmark and visionary” report calling for “step change” in the way young adults are managed throughout the criminal justice system. The recommendations, if implemented and pursued by government, mean that young adults would be dealt with as distinct from children and older adults from the point of charging, through the court process and also in prisons. The Justice Select Committee Inquiry on Young Adult Offenders concluded that an approach that takes account of the maturity of young adults would result in fewer victims of crime and less cost.
Young adults aged 18-25 are the most likely group to commit crime, but also the group most likely to grow out of crime when treated as a distinct group, a view the Committee said was supported by “overwhelming evidence” based on research from neuroscience, psychology and criminology. However, the MPs found that: “In their policies and their guidance, the Ministry of Justice and NOMS do not appear to give sufficient weight to the implications of brain maturation for young adult men and women aged 21 to 25. Even for those aged 18 to 20 they lack a strategic differentiation in approach, particularly in prisons, for both male and female prisoners.”
In an unprecedented move, the Committee presented a blueprint for a strategic approach to young adults, which it said it created “in the light of the Government’s failure to act and in recognition of the weight and wealth of evidence provided to us in the course of our inquiry, as well as the overwhelming enthusiasm within the sector for change”. This includes proposals to test distinct courts and prisons for young adults, and universal screening for mental health problems and brain injury.The Committee also called for all 18-25 year olds to be recognised as a distinct group, and for a coherent cross-departmental approach to enable young adults, particularly those who have faced challenge and difficulty, to thrive and not be thwarted.
What was said about young adult women?
Although most of Select Committee’s report and its recommendations are applicable to all young adults, there were some important issues raised in relation to the specific needs of young women.
Research from neuroscience shows that neurological functioning in young adult women settles earlier than young men, in their late teens rather than mid-20s. Professor Huw Williams from Exeter University stated that the evidence on maturation and brain development in young adulthood applies across gender, although women typically mature more quickly.
The Committee found that: “With regards to its guidance on the maturity of women, NOMS acknowledges that, similar to males, the parts of the brain associated with impulse control, and regulation and interpretation of emotions, are the last to mature, and continue to develop well into adulthood. It also identifies gender differences in the expression of antisocial behaviour among maturing boys and girls: girls tend to display less physical aggression but more relational forms of aggression, such as ostracism of peers, non-physical bullying, and manipulation, than do boys.”
The Committee highlighted that the majority of young adults in prison have had “atypical” brain development, including brain injury, which is likely to further impair their ability to reach the maturity of an adult. A small scoping study conducted by the Disabilities Trust suggested prevalence of brain injury in women’s prisons could be as high as 70%. This is a similar level to that found among young men in prison, but the causality is different – for women, most of the injuries are the result of cumulative ‘low-level’ blows to the head from inflicted violence, whereas fights and accidents are far more common among young men. For young women, a distinct intervention is likely to be required, and a pilot project led by the Disabilities Trust has recently launched in HMP Drake Hall women’s prison, which will test a new model of brain injury rehabilitation.
The Committee found that much of the research that has been done on young adults involved in crime has been with males, resulting in a lack of research on differences in criminal justice responses between young women and young men. This may be exacerbating poor outcomes for young women. Factors that differentiate young and older women include factors such as: Nearly two thirds of young women in custody aged between 16 and 21 have recently been in statutory care, a fifth are mothers of young children, and most have experienced very recent trauma.
The Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A), which provided substantial evidence to the Committee during the inquiry, has developed a number of projects focused on the specific needs of young adult women. This includes research on their management in prison and models of good practice for probation supervision in the community. T2A’s research has noted the importance of acknowledging the additional distinct needs of young adult women, including in prisons.
In his evidence, the consultant adolescent psychologist Dr Enys Delmage reported that in his practice “males tend to externalise their trauma, through violence, aggression and verbal threats, whereas females are more likely to internalise distress”.
As T2A has reported, there are currently no dedicated custodial facilities for young adult women, who are all held alongside adults. Although prison service rules (PSO 4800) do require women’s prisons to undertake specific strategic responses for young women, the Prisons Inspectorate usually finds little evidence of this in practice.
The Committee heard from young men and women who spoke highly of initiatives that encouraged and assisted them to re-define themselves and see a future outside the criminal justice system, including the value of gender-specific support and opportunities for them to become mentors, or advisers themselves. For example, Advance Minerva, through its T2A Pathway project supporting young adult women at the point of arrest in West London, had found it was important that interventions were based on intensive and holistic relationships, and the ability for these to be accessed within female only services in which they would feel safer.
The government has 60 days to respond to the Committee’s report. T2A is pursuing an action plan to ensure that the report is implemented, and would welcome engagement with organisations with expertise in supporting female service users to ensure that policy and practice reforms take account of the distinct needs of young women.