Young women are increasingly becoming involved in risk-taking behaviour
Crime chic is the newest fad in Hollywood where a brush with the law seems de rigueur for the hard-living party girls of the A list, many of whom can now add a prison mugshot to their portfolio.
And it seems Australian women are following the lead of Paris and Lindsay, with a huge explosion in the number of women sentenced to prison for serious crimes, and young girls taking on the tough-guy behaviour once seen as the preserve of adolescent males.
“You see the boys doing it; committing crimes, and you think, ‘well, I could have a go at that,’” says Lisa Stewart* who at 17 has notched up a string of convictions.
Sometimes, she says, the crimes happened when she was bored, other times a fight with her mum would provoke an outburst of window breaking or car stealing. Often her criminal activity took place as part of a gang of girls, on a rampage through the city streets.
Homeless at 13, within four years she’d been before the courts almost a dozen times, been the victim of violent crime herself and tried drugs, but she has now cleaned up her act with the threat of detention looming large.
“They (the courts) told me next time it would be jail, so I’ve turned my life around,” says the softly spoken teen who is now in a job placement program and has aspirations of working in hospitality.
And Lisa is not alone, with criminal behaviour rising rapidly among young women and more than ever are doing prison time for it. From 1997 to 2007 the number of women in prison increased by 82 per cent according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
In the same period the number of women jailed for acts intended to cause injury more than doubled, and the number of women jailed for murder soared by 93 per cent.
Female imprisonment rates increased in every state, with Tasmania recording the highest proportional increase with a huge 493 per cent jump in incarcerated women.
These days tough girl behaviour starts early – often in the schoolyard where today’s teenage girls are out-smoking, out-drinking, out-drugging and out-sexing their male counterparts. Forget pop star crushes and swapping fashion tips; sex, booze, drugs and ciggies are the hobbies of choice for teenage girls. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Statistics on Drug Use report found that in the 14-to-19-year age group, girls were smoking more than boys, and the Australian Drug Foundation has found that teenage girls are more likely to try drugs and binge drink than boys.
Last year YouTube removed graphic footage of a Melbourne schoolgirl being violently bashed by another teenage girl – but not before 5000 people had watched it.
And teenage girls are capable of much worse than this, as the trial of two Perth girls who strangled a friend and buried her body in a shallow grave, demonstrated last year.
The then 16-year-olds, showed no remorse for the murder for which they were jailed for life, explaining only that they killed their friend to see how it would feel.
The murder came after two 14-year-old girls bashed a Sydney taxi driver resulting in him suffering a fatal coronary. The girls apparently boasted about the death to friends. They are now each serving a three-and-half-year sentence for manslaughter.
Both girls were reported to have come from violent backgrounds. Lisa Stewart says issues such as homelessness, anger, fragmented family and low self-esteem contributed to her criminal behaviour.
But Australian criminologist Tricia Fox says this is simply making excuses for bad behaviour. “The incidence of crimes and major assaults perpetrated by women which have occurred across the nation, have been calculated, planned; have been for thrills; have been to dominate, which are all of the characteristics we see with men,” Fox said.
“We’re seeing a lot more serious assaults by girls now. The most serious assault I knew of was a group of girls trying to throw another girl off a moving train. There has been a significant, dramatic increase in heinous offences by women,” and she predicts things will only get worse.
“Attitudes have changed from when (committing crime) wasn’t a girl thing to do; if it did happen she was instantly labelled mad and it was just unthinkable for women to do these things. Young women now see it as their right, their sense of individuality to have those sorts of behaviours.”
Lawyer and female prisoner advocate, Debbie Kilroy is all too aware of what life is like behind bars for Australian women. At 13 she wagged school and ended up in youth detention where she says she suffered terrible abuse.
“It was quite horrific in the prison system at that time, we (the prisoners) were all
drugged and locked up and it was up to the psychiatrists whether they let us out or not. I was in and out of there until I was 17.”
Kilroy blames the system for introducing her to a life of violence. “When you’re treated with violence that’s how you learn to express yourself. I ended up in other violent situations and crime.”
She finally managed to end the cycle of violence and crime she was caught up in and started the prisoner’s advocacy group Sisters Inside and studied to become a lawyer.
She believes it is ridiculous to assume young women choose to be violent. She argues they are forced into hopeless situations.
“I’ve never come across anyone who has just broken the law for no reason; just because they’re bad. I go into a youth detention centre each week to provide support for young women, and at no time do I hear them glorify crime, I hear them talk about the horrific abuse situations that they’re coming from and are going back to,” Kilroy said.
“More than 80 per cent of women in prison are there for drug-related crime and usually that’s related to horrific childhood sexual abuse and physical violence. 89 per cent of women in prison have been sexually abused before they even hit the gate and 98 per cent experience physical violence.
“So you have these children growing up enduring horrific physical trauma and they only way they can deal with it, because they’re living in poverty as well, is to self-medicate and that’s when you have to start using illegal drugs and that’s when you collide with crime basically. If we released all the women jailed for drug-related crime there’d be hardly anyone in there.”
*name has been changed