The Big Question: Why are girls committing more crime, and should we be alarmed?

Why are we asking this question now?

Anxiety about growing lawlessness among young women was fuelled by figures yesterday from the Youth Justice Board (YJB). It disclosed that the number of offences committed by girls leapt by 25 per cent in just three years, compared with a two per cent fall among boys.

The notion of female delinquents has recently passed into the national consciousness with the comic creations of Little Britain's Vicky Pollard and Lauren Cooper, the surly teenager portrayed by Catherine Tate. But there is a sinister side to the phenomenon of girls aping boys' yobbish behaviour, with a series of reports in recent months of vicious attacks by girls and women. Evidence is mounting that violent crime is spreading to female offenders.

What do the youth crime figures show?

The vast majority of offences are committed by boys, but just over one-fifth of crimes reported to Youth Offending Teams, which deal with children aged between 10 and 17, are committed by girls. The trend is sharply upwards, representing a 25 per cent increase on the 47,358 offences committed by girls in 2003-04. Last year, girls carried out 15,672 violent attacks (a rise of more than 50 per cent over the past three years) and more than one-quarter of all assaults by youngsters. They were also responsible for 19,722 thefts, 5,964 public order offences and 5,748 incidents of criminal damage.

One-hundred-and-eighty girls were convicted of arson, while 954 were found guilty of drugs crimes and 1,463 of drugs crimes.

What happens to them?

A total of 15,835 girls appeared in court last year, of whom 15,375 received bail or community sentences and 460 were sent into custody. Fewer than 10 per cent of the children in custody are girls, although they commit about 20 per cent of offences, suggesting courts are less willing to lock them up or – more likely – they have been convicted of less serious offences.

Currently 207 girls are locked up in young offender institutions, secure training centres or local authority homes, compared with 2,735 boys. The numbers of children of both sexes who are behind bars is increasing, despite appeals to courts by the YJB to use more community sentences.

What recent evidence is there of girls becoming violent?

A girl who received horrific injuries in a bomb blast in Harrow, north-west London, was said to have been living in fear of a girl gang that had already beaten her up and was trying to drive her out of the city. Last night, the explosion was blamed by police on a gas leak, but the episode inadvertently shone a spotlight on violence between young women.

Last month, a massive brawl erupted between rival girl gangs wielding snooker balls in socks in the unlikely setting of Shoreham railway station in West Sussex.

In Northwich, Cheshire, a former policewoman was punched in the face by a teenage girl as she was mobbed by a gang of youngsters. A 15-year-old girl was jailed in March for filming two male friends beating a man to death in Keighley, West Yorkshire, on her mobile phone. The same month, a court heard that a gang of six teenage girls threw stones at a pensioner in Selby, North Yorkshire, forcing her into a busy road and leaving her with a broken nose and black eyes.

Are girls really committing more crime?

It is hard to deny the trend uncovered by the YJB's figures, but the increase might not be as dramatic as it first appears.

First, the number of teenage girls in the population has risen, so the offending rate could be expected to go up – although not, admittedly, by 25 per cent. More significantly, more girls are becoming embroiled in the youth justice system after petty incidents, such as school fights. There is also evidence that many of the theft/handling crimes committed by girls are minor shoplifting offences. Where they might have previously received informal warnings, they are now appearing in youth courts. Paul Cavadino, chief executive of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, said: "Much of the recorded 25 per cent rise is a statistical illusion, reflecting a greater readiness to report minor offences to the police."

Nacro also suspects that more children of both sexes are being given on-the-record reprimands by police because of pressure to hit targets for crime detection.

Elaine Arnull, of London's South Bank University, who has investigated female offending for the YJB, said: "We think the response to girls by agencies – schools, police, other people – has changed, so girls are possibly being prosecuted for offences they weren't being prosecuted for before."

She added: "Most offending by girls, especially violent offending, is of a very low level. It doesn't mean it's insignificant, but it is hair-pulling fights between girls."

The rise could also be seen as evidence that society is becoming less tolerant of behaviour that might once have been seen as high spirits.

Surely drink plays a part?

There is ample evidence in town and city centres at weekends of the phenomenon of "ladettes", groups of teenage girls and young women who become as drunk and unruly as their male contemporaries. Recent police figures suggested that 50 per cent more women were arrested in 2007-08 for being drunk and disorderly than five years ago. In the West Midlands, the number went up from just 59 to 731.

Meanwhile, as many as 29 per cent of schoolgirls admit to binge-drinking, a higher figure than schoolboys. Given the link between extreme alcohol consumption and violence, it is inevitable that more girls are finding themselves with a criminal record. David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said the levels of offending were a "shocking indictment" of the Government's failure to get a grip on crime. He said new licensing laws, and policies which have "driven family breakdown", had contributed to the problem.

Are more girls joining gangs?

Last year, the Metropolitan Police estimated that there were at least 170 youth gangs in London, but only three known to be all-female. There is also anecdotal evidence of the rise of "mixed-sex" gangs in some parts of the country.

However, very little research has been done into the subject and the true extent of gang membership among girls nationally is unknown. But its impact is already being felt in several communities.

Is there a crimewave among girls?

Yes...

* A 25 per cent rise in offences is objective proof of more lawlessness among girls.

* Female binge-drinking is growing, resulting in more violent crime offences.

* There has been a succession of reports about girl violence in all parts of the country.

No...

* Girls commit far fewer crimes than boys – only 20 per cent of the offences committed by children.

* They are being prosecuted for offences that would have previously received an informal warning.

* Drink-fuelled high spirits are hardly a pointer to criminal behaviour in later life.

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