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Girls turning 18 in the CJS fall through the gaps in the system

Girls in the criminal justice system face a cliff-edge as they turn 18 as many services change or drop off all at once and leave young women vulnerable at a critical time in their lives.

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Cliff-edge of support

New research from Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, and the Alliance for Youth Justice (AYJ) shows that girls face unique and escalating risks as they turn 18. The transition from girlhood to adulthood could be an opportunity to get things right, but with little to no specialist support for young women as a group, it becomes a missed opportunity to prevent young women’s needs becoming more complex and entrenched 

The briefing, which brings together research undertaken with young women and the services supporting them, as well as existing literature and data, shows that:  

  • Young women turning 18 face a cliff edge in support, facing harsher treatment than in the youth justice system, as well as changes to mental health support, reduced safeguarding obligations, and limited and potentially unsafe accommodation options.  
  • Girls and young women in conflict with the law as they turn 18 are more likely to have experienced violence, abuse and exploitation, have been in care, faced poor mental health and experienced early parenthood than boys – vulnerabilities which, if left unaddressed, can be key drivers of their offending.  
  • The risk of abuse and maltreatment for girls does not end when they turn 18, but many are not entitled to ongoing support from statutory services, despite perpetrators identifying this falling away of support and deliberately targeting older teenage girls on the cusp of adulthood.  
  • Girls who commit offences as children but turn 18 whilst waiting for their court hearings face more punitive sentences. This has lifelong impacts, including additional stigma and barriers to employment, but years of court closures and delays due to COVID-19 mean young women will be increasingly affected by this.  
  • Already overrepresented in the criminal justice system, racism and other forms of oppression leave Black and minoritised young women vulnerable to being driven even further into it as they turn 18.   
  • Young women who become care leavers as they turn 18 are over-represented and face additional stigma in the criminal justice system. Instability in childhood is exacerbated by the disruption they experience as they become adults, leaving them at greater risk of re-offending.  
© Tobias Tullius https://unsplash.com/@tobiastu

Transitions based on need, rather than age

With young adults increasingly recognised in literature as a distinctly vulnerable group, especially during transitions, there is growing support for taking a distinct approach to 18–25-year-olds in the criminal justice system. Both the literature and expert testimony agree that transitions should be based on need, rather than age. The report argues that a more flexible approach to transitions would allow for the extension of service provision and support including the YOT model – for young women beyond the age of 18.

Experts described the benefits of greater flexibility in transfers from YOTs to probation, including one practitioner
who told the researchers about her experience of working with a young woman who made this transition six months after her 18th birthday:

“We actually made the decision with probation to ‘hold onto her’ for six months because she was not at a point where she was ready to make that move. By the time we got to a place of transitioning it felt like it was something that was being done with her rather than to her. Previously, she’s always had quite negative endings because things have come to an end so abruptly, but we gave her the opportunity to end the relationship she had with me in a very positive way.”

Practitioners spoke of girls experiencing a “conveyor belt” of professionals coming in and out of their lives, and the value of consistent and trusted relationships. Girls, young women and practitioners all emphasised the critical importance of ongoing support post-18 from existing criminal justice professionals who are able to support agencies newly responsible for working with the young women, as well as remaining available to support young woman  themselves.

Conclusion

Upon turning 18, young women in contact with the criminal justice system who transition into adult services face an
arbitrary cliff-edge in support, a lack of understanding and recognition of their needs, and more punitive responses
to their vulnerabilities. There is little recognition of the need for a distinct age- and gender-specific approach for young women to address the, sometimes escalating, risks they face at this time in their lives. 

These include increased vulnerability to criminal and sexual exploitation as support from statutory services falls away, and barriers accessing effective mental health support and suitable accommodation. For young adult women facing additional forms of disadvantage and discrimination – including Black and minoritised young women, and young women with experience of care – this increased vulnerability to harm and likelihood of being overlooked is exacerbated.

For young women in contact with the criminal justice system, the transition from girlhood to adulthood could be an opportunity to get things right, preventing their needs from becoming more complex and entrenched. With many services changing or dropping off all at once, they may be at greater risk of continued criminal justice system
involvement as a result. 

To prevent them falling through the gaps, girls and young women need age-appropriate, gender-specific support from both statutory services and specialist women and girls’ organisations, with funding available to ensure consistent and continuous support is the norm, not the exception.

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