The rise of the thuggettes

Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah -

Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah -

Society faces a surge of young girl criminals if it fails to intervene to tackle the reasons they break the law, a forthcoming report has concluded.

The study suggests projects and schemes aimed at young offenders should treat females differently by addressing the effects of the violent or sexually abusive relationships and family breakdown that often lie behind their offending.

The report by the Centre for British Teachers Education Trust (CfBT) research group found that while limited work in the US has shown “promising” results, there has been little take-up in Britain. Without this change, CfBT’s director Tony McAleavy said, “the figures seem to support the fact that the further into the youth justice system you go, the more likely you are to reoffend. It’s evidence that custody doesn’t work.”

One organisation has for three years put troubled teenagers back onto the right side of the law using – perhaps surprisingly – contemporary dance, and its results are impressive. One woman, Ruth, joked: “I was a majorette as a girl, so at least I have some dancing experience.” But after becoming addicted to heroin and crack, she has spent two years in prison. “My confidence was really low but, now, to be able to get on stage without using drugs is amazing, I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

The Dance United project based in Bradford accepts teenagers and young adults from across the north. Cohorts of around 10 to 15 are put through an intensive 12-week course, with a public performance after just three weeks.

They are drawn from prison and young offenders units, from youth offending teams and probation, and from local authority care. But on stage they look every inch the part, moving together in rhythm, with flowing costumes, subtle lighting and expressive choreography, their faces masks of concentration or calm.

Kathryn Brentwoods, one of the group’s dance teachers, said the skills required to perform a dance piece from scratch in such a short time tend to act directly on the needs and fears of the participants.

She said: “The programme is structured, very disciplined – they must be in on time, concentrate in class, and we don’t compromise on the rules. They need to learn to not talk or fidget, learn self-control, and to think before they act. This comes as a shock.”

Many will have problems with intimacy, personal space, touching and being touched from their experiences, barriers which are broken down by dance moves such as lifting and catching each other.

“We found we have to build up slowly to physical contact. We have to be clear about what is good touching and what isn’t. But they begin to build a lot of skills for life –confidence, negotiation, self-control, and teamwork,” she added.

Another of the group, Jaynie, 19, from Nottingham, has been in an open prison since December. “My friend had done it before, recommended it. It’s difficult, but I feel a lot more confident. I’ve learned how to control my anger, especially here when everyone’s a lot younger than me.

“It’s great to socialise with other people, where no one knows about you or why you’re here,” she said. “It’s nice that they can look at what were doing without disapproving of what we’ve done. You’re here on a clean slate.”

Ruth, 27, from North Wales, said: “The staff are really good with you and treat you well, better than the screws.

“I’ve learnt to get along with people really quickly. I’m quite turned into myself as a person, but I’ve got over that. It’s a place where everyone can be themselves. I love it.”

She hopes to go to college to study “something physical,” while one previous participant went on to study at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

Dance United director, Rob Lynden, said the intense focus on the three-week project and discouraging talking about their backgrounds helped draw a line under their past.

He said: “It is designed to take them away from what is expected of them, where they are expected to be belligerent, problematic, where they expect to fail. Instead we can put them in a place where they can succeed.”

A Manchester University evaluation of the course found “a substantial positive impact with large numbers of participants,” and that almost three-quarters of participants re-engaged with education or employment, and reported better relationships in their personal lives.

Dance United, along with projects such as that run by Birmingham Youth Offending Team, are among the few organisations that have tried a new tack which McAleavy hopes will help cut the “alarming” rate of reoffending and high rates of self-harm among women in custody.

He said: “What we need is a much more calm and collected view about this, instead of a moral panic and media frenzy.”

“Undoubtedly people’s lives are blighted by youth crime. But question is this: will a 300 per cent increase in custody tackle youth crime? No, it will make it worse, because incarceration is strongly linked to further offending. Let’s have a debate about this and look for something that actually works.”

A common perception is that female offending is rising. Last month’s Ministry of Justice report, Women and the Criminal Justice System, fuelled headlines raging over “ladette culture.” The statistics showed a 22 per cent rise of crime over five years by girls under 18, with 251,000 arrests in 2006-07.

But this shouldn’t be taken at face value, CfBT’s Tony McAleavy said: “There is no hard evidence for radical seismic shift in girls’ offending behaviour,” he said. “The issue is to do with the response to crime.

“More girls are in court and going to custody, but the report shows this is because fewer girls are getting dealt with by reprimands or cautions. It’s the response to crime that is changing, not the criminal behaviour.”

A more heavy-handed approach by the courts has seen a 297 per cent increase in custodial sentences for girls between 1992 and 2006, compared to a 56 per cent average for under-18s of both sexes.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, agreed that earlier interventions by youth workers had led to higher numbers: “We don’t draw any strong conclusions from the caseload data,” he said.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, 2009]


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