A new report has warned that the proposed bill “risks criminalising young women” who are in distress and in need of support.
Warning: this article contains includes details of abuse and suicidality.
The proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill could lead to more vulnerable young women being swept into the criminal justice system, a new report warns.
According to research conducted by Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, and the Alliance for Youth Justice, the proposed increase to the sentence length for assaults on emergency workers from 12 months to two years will have a detrimental effect on the most vulnerable young women, because many of those who are charged with this crime are simply responding to a traumatic experience which the frontline professional has not been equipped and resourced to identify.
The report also warns that Black and minority young women – who are already overrepresented in the criminal justice system and face harsher treatment than their white counterparts – are likely to be hit hardest by this increase in sentence length, as these kinds of offences already make up 17% of the total offences leading to a custodial sentence for Black young women aged 18-24, compared to 6% for their white counterparts.
Niya, a young woman who was charged with assaulting a police officer when she was 18, is one of the many individuals who would be affected by the increase in sentence length. Despite being labelled as a “criminal” for her actions, she wishes people would understand her crime – which came about when she was in a forced marriage and had spoken to her family about wanting to get a divorce – is just “the tip of the iceberg”.
“I decided to tell my family that I didn’t want to stay in the marriage, and then they started hitting me,” she explains, adding that her family physically abused her and told her “you might as well go kill yourself,” when she spoke up about her wishes.
“My family continued to hit me and then someone called the police, and when the police came I was really panicking and crying, and the police just crowded me,” Niya explains. “There was like four or five police officers, and the police only listened to my mum. They didn’t listen to me. Then they told me, ‘You’re going to get arrested’.”
Surrounded by officers who said she was going to be arrested – despite the fact that she had been the one on the receiving end of the abuse – Niya panicked and kicked an officer.
“They were all gathered around me… if they had just backed off a little bit, I think I would have reacted differently, but they were all in my face after going through what I had just gone through,” she says.
The new report, which was published on Monday (13 September) ahead of the bill being debated in the House of Lords later this week, also found that young women in contact with the criminal justice system are more likely to have experienced extensive violence and abuse, with 63% of girls and young women serving sentences in the community having experienced rape or domestic abuse in their own intimate partner relationships.
As well as painting a picture of the traumatic experiences which often drive these women to offend in the first place, these statistics also highlight how important it is that vulnerable young women are kept out of the criminal justice system, as the increased vulnerability this can cause (due to factors such as worsening mental health, isolation and poverty) puts them at heightened risk of going on to face further abuse.
“The most vulnerable young women in our society are being driven further into a system that punishes them for their response to trauma,” Jemima Olchawski, CEO of Agenda, said in a statement. “Once in the criminal justice system they have limited access to specialist support and are left to deal with their entrenched and complex experiences of trauma, putting them at heightened risk of repeated offending.”
Olchawski continues: “Young women like Niya dealing with the impact of trauma aren’t hard to find in the justice system. Black and minoritised young women face harsher treatment across the criminal justice system and are significantly more likely to be arrested than white young women, particularly for assaulting an emergency worker.
“The new PCSC Bill risks criminalising young women, and particularly Black young women, who are in distress and whose needs have not been recognised.”