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«Deposited on: 4 March 2009 Enlighten – Research publications by members of the University of Glasgow ...»

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Batchelor, S.A. (2005) 'Prove me the bam!': victimization and agency in the

lives of young women who commit violent offences. Probation Journal, 52

(4). pp. 358-375. ISSN 0264-5505


Deposited on: 4 March 2009

Enlighten – Research publications by members of the University of Glasgow


‘Prove Me the Bam!’ Victimisation and Agency

in the Lives of Young Women Who Commit Violent Offences

Susan A. Batchelor


This article reviews the evidence regarding young women’s involvement in violent crime and, drawing on recent research carried out in HMPYOI Cornton Vale in Scotland, provides an overview of the characteristics, needs and deeds of young women sentenced to imprisonment for violent offending. Through the use of direct quotations, the article suggests that young women’s anger and aggression is often related to their experiences of family violence and abuse, and the acquisition of a negative worldview in which other people are considered as being ‘out to get you’ or ‘put one over on you’. The young women survived in these circumstances, not by adopting discourses that cast them as exploited victims, but by drawing on (sub) cultural norms and values which promote preemptive violence and the defence of respect. The implications of these findings for those who work with such young women are also discussed.

Keywords Young women, violent offending, imprisonment, victimisation, agency, responsibilisation, gender-specific services, worker-client relationship Introduction We are dealing with more and more drunken and violent young women in our town centres […] it’s a worrying problem that we need to look into. (John Vine, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers Scotland, quoted in MacAskill 2004) In the absence of good public information, single incidents about women offenders can lead to misinformation about the nature of women’s offending and the punishments they receive. This makes it hard for service providers to form a clear view about how well their services are targeted and how effective they may be. (Social Work Services and Prisons Inspectorates for Scotland 1998, Recommendation 5) Public and professional concern about young women’s violence has continued apace since the mid 1990s. In May 2004, Scotland’s most senior police officer, John Vine, was reported as having expressed disquiet about the rising number of crimes committed by drunken and violent young women (MacAskill 2004). Scottish Executive statistics published in the same year showed that, in Scotland, women had increased their share of violent crime, from 7.5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2002 (Scottish Executive 2001, 2004a). Alongside this apparent escalation was an increase in women’s imprisonment, with the average daily population of female sentenced young offenders growing by 52 percent between 1994 and 2003 (Scottish Prison Service 2004). Looking at these percentage rises, Vine’s call for new research into the growing ‘problem’ of female violence (MacAskill and Goodwin 2004) is understandable. Historically, women have formed only a small proportion of the offender population and the nature of the crimes they commit is comparatively minor (Burman 2004). The emergence of a new breed of ‘post-feminist criminal’ would therefore pose particular problems for a criminal justice system set up to deal predominantly with the offending behaviour of men. Relative low numbers and a perceived lack of threat have meant that, up until now, young women who commit violent offences have not been a key focus for service provision, nor indeed for criminological research, resulting in a general lack of information as to their background and characteristics and ‘what works’ in reducing their violent behaviour (Batchelor and Burman 2004). This article is an initial effort to address this gap, reporting on recent research into young women sentenced to imprisonment in Scotland.

Women who commit violent offences: the ‘facts’ Male offenders dominate the official crime statistics. This may seem like an obvious point, but is worthy of mention because it has significant implications for the way in which the data on women’s violent offending are interpreted. Table 1 presents the criminal proceedings data relating to female violence in Scotland for the period 1993Table 1. Number of females with a charge proven for non-sexual crimes of violence, including handling an offensive weapon, Scotland, 1993-2002*

–  –  –

*Source: Criminal Proceedings in the Scottish Courts 1993-2002 **The figures for 2001 and 2002 include data relating to ‘handling an offensive weapon’, which were moved from the ‘non-sexual crimes of violence’ group to ‘other crimes’ in 2001.

These data show that between 1993 and 2002 the number of females with a charge proven for violence almost doubled (increasing by 98 percent, or 172 additional offenders). The biggest rise was amongst young women, who increased their number threefold (to 103, an increase of 194 percent, or 68 extra offenders). This general upward trend is replicated in England and Wales, where the number of women found guilty or cautioned for violence increased by 14 percent between 1994 and 2003 (Home Office 2004), and in the US, where the percentage of female juveniles arrested for violent crime increased by 101 percent during the period 1988 to 1997 (cited in Zager 2000: 90).

Viewed in isolation, these figures paint a picture in which young women appear to be becoming more violent, more quickly. However, as with all official crime statistics, care must be taken to place these data in context. Excluding handling an offensive weapon, which the criminal proceedings data now categorises under the heading ‘Other crimes’, violent crime accounts for just over one-and-a-half percent of the total crimes and offences committed by women in Scotland (Scottish Executive 2004a). Put another way, the overwhelming majority of female offending is non-violent. This feature is even more striking if we consider the actual number of offences committed by women compared to men. In 2002, 289 women had a charge for a non-sexual crime of violence proven against them in Scotland, compared with 1,900 crimes of violence committed by men. 1 What this contextual data tells us, therefore, is that while the number of women convicted of a violent crime is increasing, violence (particularly serious violence) is still an overwhelmingly male activity.

Because the actual number of women involved in violent offending is low, very small numerical increases or decreases can make a great deal of difference in terms of reported percentage rises and falls (Batchelor 2001). Drawing on the figures presented in Table 1, for example, we can see that in Scotland in 2000, 96 women under the age of 21 had a charge for a non-sexual crime of violence proven against them, compared to 72 women in 2001 – a decrease of 25 percent, or 14 less offenders (Scottish Executive 2002, 2004a). This was followed by an increase of 43 percent in 2002, when the total number of These figures rise to 413 and 4,365 respectively if the data on handling an offensive weapon are included (ibid.).

young violent females rose to 103 – 31 more offenders than in 2001, but only seven more than in 2000. 2 It is also important to acknowledge that official statistics say as much about sentencing patterns as they do offending (Acoca and Dedel 1998). It remains unclear whether the increases in female offending reported above can be attributed to actual rates of violent crime or changing responses to violence. Again their low numbers make young women who commit violent crime extremely susceptible to changes in criminal justice policy and practice. It could be possible, therefore, that what we are witnessing is not an increase in violent offending per se, but the increased reporting, policing and prosecuting of young women accused of violent offences. As we have already noted, in the 10-year period prior to 2003 the average daily population of female sentenced young offenders grew by 52 percent (an actual increase of 12 prisoners) (Scottish Prison Service 2004). 3 Such trends have led commentators (e.g. Worrall 2001) to argue that responses to girls and young women who offend have undergone a fundamental shift, from a traditional welfare-oriented approach to one which seeks to criminalise and punish a supposed ‘new breed’ of ‘nasty little madams’.

Despite the growing number of young women convicted of violent offences, and the level of media interest that this has generated, there has been very little British research conducted in the area. This contrasts with the situation in North America, where the topic is now well established as a field of academic endeavour. Most of this US research has centred on girls’ gang involvement (Campbell 1984, 1990; Joe and ChesneyLind 1995; Miller 1998, 2001) and the experiences of Black and Hispanic women See Gelsthorpe and Morris (2002) for a discussion of the data in relation to England and Wales.

The number of male sentenced young offenders fell by four percent during the same period (a decrease of 23 offenders) (Scottish Prison Service 2004).

involved in the street-level drug economy (Baskin and Sommers 1998; Maher 1997). The remainder of this paper reports preliminary findings from one of the first UK studies to focus on young women convicted of a violent crime. Drawing on both quantitative and qualitative data, it describes the backgrounds and characteristics of young women sentenced to imprisonment for violent offending, before discussing the sources of young women’s anger and aggression according to young women themselves. In doing so, the paper points to a number of key considerations to be taken into account by those who work with such young women.

The research study Funded by the ESRC, the ‘Pathways through Violence’ research focused on the feelings, beliefs, and experiences of young women convicted of a violent crime. One of the key aims was to bring the voices of young women to the centre of theoretical and methodological debates about ‘youth violence’ and, in doing so, to acknowledge the often inconsistent and even contradictory ways in which subordination and agency are simultaneously realised in young women’s lives. Both traditional and feminist analyses of women’s lawbreaking have tended to depict women who are violent as victims – of their biology (violent women as emotional, irrational and ‘out of control’) or of gender oppression (where the ‘violent woman’ is reconstructed as the ‘abused woman’ and women’s violence is framed as a response to an abusive situation or past abusive experiences). The problem with this approach is that it contributes to the falsehood that women who commit violent crimes are in some way abnormal or bizarre; it denies women any agency or choice in their lives; and it leaves us with little understanding of (or guidance as to how we should react to) violence perpetrated by female offenders.

Methods employed by the study included in-depth oral-history interviews with 21 young women detained in HMPYOI Cornton Vale in Scotland, interviews with adults that work with such young women, and documentary analysis (of social work reports, trial judge reports, prison narratives, programme records, etc.). 4 All of the young women in the interview sample were single and all were white, and ages ranged from 16 to 24 years. 5 The various violent offence types committed by the young women are presented

in Table 2:

Cornton Vale is Scotland’s only all-female establishment, and the majority of Scotland’s female prison population is housed there, including young offenders. Fieldwork was completed in August 2001, when there were 38 young women serving a custodial sentence for violence. Each of these young women was sent a letter asking them if they would be interested in participating in the study and, of the 24 who agreed to be involved, 21 were eventually interviewed. These interviews ranged in length from one to two hours, all of which were tape-recorded, transcribed and analysed by the author.

In February 2005, minority ethnic groups made up five percent of the female prison population in Scotland (SPS, personal correspondence, 24/02/05). In the general population of Scotland, 98% is white.

The disproportionate number of ethnic minority women in prison in Scotland is therefore much lower than in England and Wales, where minority ethnic groups make up 26 percent of the female average population (compared to six percent of the population at large).

Table 2. Number of violent offence types

–  –  –

Serious assault was the most common, closely followed by ‘petty’ assault. 6 Length of sentence ranged from three months (assault) to 12 years (attempted murder) and mean length of sentence was three years and three months. Four-fifths of the young women had According to the official classification of crimes and offences, an assault is recorded as serious if the

victim sustains an injury resulting in detention in hospital as an in-patient, or any of the following injuries:

fractures, concussion, internal injuries, crushing, severe cuts or lacerations or severe general shock (Scottish Executive 2004b).

previous convictions, not necessarily for violence, and just under half had served a previous custodial sentence.

According to narrative data from the interviews, serious assaults were generally alcohol-related, or drug-related and committed during the course of a robbery. Simple assaults were generally committed alongside acquisitive crimes such as shoplifting, for example when the offender was apprehended by security staff. These patterns are described in more detail in Table 3, which offers a crude typology of the violent offenders interviewed as part of the study.

Table 3. Female violent offender typology

–  –  –

under the influence of alcohol. (Rare in current sample due to age range, but more common in the wider prison population.) Younger offender who drinks heavily and experiments with recreational drugs and/or abuses prescription medication (or who, occasionally, has a drug addiction). The violent offence typically relates to a fight that is initiated whilst the offender is under the influence and where things ‘get out of hand’ resulting in the victim receiving a severe injury, sometimes due to the use of a weapon. Victims are generally (but not solely) other young women.

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