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Imprisoned girls cannot be detained in YOIs but there are otherwise no formal distinctions in their treatment within the youth justice system. Nonetheless, girls have consistently represented a small proportion of the offending and custodial populations: in 2013/15 19 % and 5 %, respectively (Ministry of Justice 2015b). This underrepresentation is partly reflective of the fact that girls commit fewer and less serious offenses, and grow out of crime more successfully and at a lower age.

However, it is also indicative of gendered assumptions that operate in contradictory ways. On the one hand, girls’ problematic behavior is more likely to receive a lenient response than that displayed by boys, leading to higher levels of diversion. As a consequence, girls who do come into contact with justice agencies are often significantly more vulnerable than their male counterparts and have particularly complex needs (Bateman and Hazel 2014). Conversely, it has been suggested that, for violent offenses, girls are more likely to be imprisoned than boys because such conduct transgresses gender norms as well as the law, thereby rendering them ‘doubly deviant.’ Moreover, when incarcerated, girls are at higher risk of restraint and self-harm (Sharpe and Gelsthorpe 2015).

These complex dynamics are exacerbated by the manner in which youth justice assessments operate in England and Wales. Based on the risk-factor paradigm, the assessment process requires practitioners to allocate a ‘score’ to children which purports to be indicative of their risk of reoffending. This score then determines the intensity of contact for community-based intervention. But since girls in the justice system display higher levels of vulnerability—which are inevitably captured in the scoring—and have a lower propensity to reoffending than boys, the process tends to systematically overpredict the risk of recidivism in girls, leading to more extensive intervention than might be warranted by the seriousness of their offending (Bateman 2012a).

There are other forms of disproportionality evident in the youth justice system. The overrepresentation of children in care has already been noted. Perhaps the most disconcerting trends are those which demonstrate that the already disproportionate involvement of minority ethnic children in the justice system is worsening. Black children constitute 4 % of the general 10-17 population but, in 2013/14, accounted for 8 %> of those receiving a youth justice sanction, a rise from 6.1 %o in 2009/10, suggesting that such children have not benefited to the same extent as their white counterparts from the decline in FTEs. As interventions become increasingly punitive, so does overrepresentation. For example, of the children serving long-term custodial sentences of more than 2 years, more than a quarter were black (Ministry of Justice/Youth Justice Board 2015).

A variety of explanations are posited for the differential treatment of minority ethnic children, including disproportionate levels of stop and search by the police, and discriminatory decision-making by courts and practitioners within the justice system (May et al. 2010). Black children and those of mixed heritage, who come to the attention of youth justice agencies, also have high higher levels of needs as measured in assessment scores of risk (May et al. 2009), and minority ethnic children are disproportionately likely to have backgrounds of poverty and experience of other indicators of disadvantage (Home Affairs Committee 2007).

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