Women's violent crimes increasing

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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

More women are committing violent crimes, particularly street robbery, burglary and fighting, prison staff have reported.

There is increasing concern among prison and probation workers at the rising trend, particularly among women aged 21 and under who they fear are being "corrupted" by more hardened criminals. They believe part of the problem is the result of neglect, abuse and drug or alcohol addiction.

In the past decade the number of women found guilty or cautioned for an offence involving violence against the person has nearly doubled to 9,400. The sharp rise has also been accompanied by a shift towards greater use of cautioning from about a quarter of offences to nearly three-quarters.

The average daily prison population of women jailed for violent crimes has jumped in the past two years from 240 during June 1992 to 360 in the same period last year.

The Prison Service is considering setting up specialist units within jails to deal with young women involved in violence following warnings from officers and probation workers, who have also noted an increasing trend in which young women have attacked boyfriends and friends.

In the majority of the violence cases there is a history of sexual abuse, often followed by a period of prostitution and involvement in drugs.

The surge in the number of young women aged 16 and 17 being jailed has resulted in some teenagers being held in adult prisons with serious criminals because of lack of room in young offender institutions.

The Prison Service predicts that by Christmas the female jail population will increase by 200 to 2,200. However, the number of violent female offenders is still tiny compared to the total prison population of about 51,714.

Violence against the person includes murder, manslaughter, wounding, grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm, death by dangerous driving, infanticide and poisoning. One well-publicised case involving violence was the mugging of the model, Elizabeth Hurley, by four teenage girls last November.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The image of amoral female gangs is wide of the mark. There has been a rise of 50 per cent in the number of women jailed for violence in the last three years, but the reasons are complex. The majority of the group are characterised by neglect, personal abuse, drug or alcohol abuse and low self- esteem. Many have themselves been the victims of violence. The problem needs help rather than incarceration."