More and more girls are committing crimes of violence. That is worrying; more worrying still is the fact that the criminal justice system has no idea how to cope with them. By Glenda Cooper
Debs is 17 years old. So far in her short life she has notched up two convictions for assault, and one for burglary. She doesn't think this is unusual. She was first charged with assault and burglary when she was 15: "We weren't meant to go out of the children's home, but a friend and me did. We were bored. We went into the centre of town to the big monument. and wrote all over it - you know, just 'Debs woz ere', that sort of thing. Then we were going back past an off-licence so we threw a brick through the window, grabbed all these bottles of beer, ran off and got drunk.

"I went back to the home and beat up this girl really bad because I found her going through my stuff. I smashed her head against the wall until she was unconscious. You can't have any privacy in a home. The police arrived and arrested me."

Home Office figures show the number of violent crimes committed by women has increased by 250 per cent since 1973. In 1987 women and girls accounted for just 10 per cent of violent crimes, but by 1995 the figure was 16 per cent. Psychologists agree that these figures mark a significant trend in female behaviour, particularly among younger women. If present trends continue, women's violent crimes will equal those of men by the year 2016.

Whereas 20 years ago girls accounted for only one in seven violent juvenile crimes, the ratio is now one in three. And there is no shortage of stories in the press about their aggression. Yesterday, 17 year old Sharon Carr was found guilty of the horrific murder of teenager Katie Rackliff, a crime committed when Carr was just 12. In May last year 13-year-old Louise Allen was kicked to death near a fairground by a crowd of girls from a rival school. In Scotland a number of schoolgirls are alleged to have carried out a hate campaign against one of their teachers which allegedly involved paint and excrement being daubed on her door and petrol spread over her drive.

An increase in violent crime among female juveniles is clearly disturbing, but there may be a deeper problem still in the way these girls are treated when they enter the criminal justice system.

Last week two workers for the Women's Strategy Group, part of the Forum for Youth Justice, presented a paper at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders conference warning that we need to rethink our treatment of girls if we are not end up with a generation of alienated women. NACRO is presently producing a 10-point plan to deal with youth crime.

The theory has always been that girls get off lightly under the criminal justice system, whereas boys are hit hard. This is simply not true, say workers in the front-line, who are increasingly worried that girls are being penalised by a system that is unused to them and has no idea how to cope with them.

For her offences, Debs ended up with a nine-month sentence and a pounds 50 fine, whereas her male counterparts, in court on similar charges, were let off with a slightly higher fine and no custodial sentence. Debs was sent to the hospital wing in Risley: "They said I wasn't old enough to go on the normal wing. It was very scary. I was sharing a ward with someone who had murdered her girlfriend, and someone who was in there for a stabbing." On appeal she managed to get her sentence reduced to a supervision order.

"Do girls get it easy? Quite the opposite," says Ros Price, one of the committee members of the Women's Strategy Group. "They tend to get into the criminal justice system earlier. If there's a fight in a playground the young woman will end up in court; the young man won't."

The establishment sees girls who use violence as less acceptable than boys who are expected to indulge in roughness. "Generally the attitude of magistrates is to see young women as nurturers and carers," says Cathy Phillips, another member.

At the moment, of 70 teenagers Phillips and Price are seeing under supervision orders, 12 are girls. But in the last two years they have seen a tremendous rise in girls going through the courts. And it is not for the traditional shoplifting. These girls steal cars, carry out burglaries and beat people up.

"One of the issues we are faced with is the frustration that young girls are feeling," says Ms Price. "They are repeatedly told that they have the same rights as young men but in reality they cannot see that they have the same status.

"Young men express their anger and frustration by smashing something. Young women are more likely to start off trying to express themselves through words. But when they realise that doesn't get as much attention as smashing a window they change their behaviour."

Debs agrees: "I went into care at the age of 13. Social services moved me 16 times. I was always moving around, not settling anywhere. When I tried to complain they said 'that's just the way the system goes'. I felt like I was being picked up like a rag doll. I felt very, very angry.

"You have to fight back because no one is listening. You can be shouting in their face but there's nothing. There's this idea that girls should be all frilly dresses and ribbons. I'm not saying it's right to beat people up but girls should be able to do whatever boys do."

But what happens to girls when they get pushed into the criminal justice system? It is a system that is historically unused to them and is still struggling to cope with their influx.

Take attendance centres - where young people are deprived of their liberty for a set number of hours per week. They were set up originally for football hooligans and even though they are now mixed centres all they may be offering is PE and woodwork.

"We saw a young pregnant woman a year ago who had got into a scrap at school over her boyfriend," says Ms Phillips. The girl was expected to fit in with what they boys were doing: "Can you imagine the experience of being six, seven months pregnant with 15-20 young men around having to do PE in a T shirt and shorts, doing 20 push ups? When we raised it with the police they just said 'Well maybe you could get someone in to do knitting and embroidery'. We managed to get her a conditional discharge in the end.

"Another young girl who had come out of a secure unit and was in a halfway house had been given a care plan that she didn't want anything to do with. She wanted it changed and we had a real struggle to get anyone to listen to her. Even when we took up her case we had difficulty enough and we are articulate adult women not 13-year-olds."

Debs is contemptuous of some of the treatment they receive: "On my supervision order I got this really crap bloke. He would have all these pieces of paper and ask me things like 'If someone threw a snowball at you would you a] throw one back b] punch his face or c] walk away.' I thought, 'Oh wow that is so helpful in real life'. So I said I'd throw one back and then go and punch them in the face."

The anger management proved a sore failure and Debs ended up in court again charged with assaulting a girl who she says had called her a slag. It was only then that she was assigned a woman social worker.

"She wanted to listen when I was mad and upset. She would talk to me, she was there for me. There's just some things you can't talk to blokes about. And she gave me really simple things to do - options like telling me to count to 10 before doing anything or walking away. It is 18 months since I started seeing her and I haven't been in trouble since."

Debs is bringing up her three month old daughter, living with her boyfriend and feels she has a family at last. "I don't want her to go through what I've gone through. I don't want her to have to fight like me. I'll always be there for her."

But the Women's Strategy Group say there are not enough women who work with girls like Debs, and more are desperately needed. Otherwise the future looks bleak. "We must remember that they are children and we need to help them," says Cathy Phillips. "Otherwise we will be breeding another generation of offenders - and another generation of victims".