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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 April 2007, 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK
Mean Girls of Scotland
By Jo Meek
Producer, The Investigation Programme

The number of young female offenders is rising across Scotland.

Over the past nine years the number of girls committing serious offences has nearly doubled, and a number of Scottish youth justice teams have seen a worrying rise in the number of girls in trouble for violent crimes.

The scale of the problem is described in this month's Radio Scotland Investigations programme.

Debbie is a petite, quietly spoken 16 year old. She looks down at her feet as she describes her former life as a gang member in Aberdeen.

teens drinking
Alcohol is one of the factors blamed for the increase in violence

She said: "Drinking, smashing up places, battering people, getting drunk, taking drugs.

"If people looked at us wrong, or walked past and said something, one of us would hit them.

"Most of the time when we were drunk we would fight.

"Yous all do what the older ones say. If they are getting drunk you would, if they are doing drugs you have to do that with them just to fit in.

"Girls are just as bad as boys, we get away with more."

Punch and kick

According to Debbie there are up to 60 gangs with girls as members in Aberdeen alone.

Across Scotland, the number of violent girls referred to the Children's Reporter and to Youth Justice Teams has been rising for the past nine years.

Radio Scotland's The Investigation was shown a vicious attack by a group of girls, recorded on a mobile phone.

In it three girls punch and kick another teenager who lies defenceless on the road as lads shout encouragement in the background.

The video was sent to Fran Connelly by her daughter's friend who was a horrified witness to the attack on a Glasgow street.

Fran has seen female violence all of her life.

She says girls were involved in gangs on the Glasgow scheme she grew up on as a teenager.

there are more and more female offenders, and quite a number involved in violent offences whilst under the influence of drink
Alex Shand

But she's shocked by this female brutality.

"Everyone's terrified of these wee gangs. If you say anything your car will get it, your kids will get it, your windows get it.

"I know I've been there, I've had it. You keep your mouth shut and say nothing, that's the law of the land in the housing schemes."

In 2000 the Scottish Executive overhauled the youth justice system and set up teams to deal with the rising numbers of persistent young offenders.

Alex Shand works with girl offenders such as Debbie in Aberdeen.

He was a policeman for more than 30 years and sees female violence as a tough challenge.

He said: "Today there are more and more female offenders, and quite a number involved in violent offences whilst under the influence of drink.

"It's more socially acceptable for females to hang about street corners and drink as young boys do.

"In my 30 years in the police force I was only assaulted twice and both were by females."

'Street cred'

Politicians and Youth Justice Teams working with young female offenders have linked the cheap availability of alcohol and drugs with the increasingly aggressive behaviour of girls.

One Youth Justice Team told the investigation that girls gain "street cred" amongst their peers by assaulting other girls.

Fights are arranged by texting each other on mobile phones.

When these assaults happen at night, they are almost always fuelled by alcohol.

A recent ICM poll for the BBC showed that 45% of people in Scotland have seen a woman who appeared drunk physically attack another person.

cornton vale
Cornton Vale prison, where female offenders are held

Tom Wood is chair of the Alcohol and Drugs Action Team in Edinburgh and he's seen a big rise in the number of drunk and disorderly young women.

He says the main problem is that, despite the fact that girls are less tolerant to alcohol than boys, many are drinking more.

"Young women cannot physically drink as much as young men.

"The problem for Scotland particularly is that alcohol is now so cheap and available it's become fashion for young people to get drunk, it's what we call masochistic drinking."

The Scottish Executive say they are investing in young people.

They have pumped 63m into youth justice and other youth services, a rise of over 59m since 2000, but the number of young offenders of both sexes has continued to steadily rise.

Very young

The problem is many young women are not able to get their lives back on track like Debbie.

They are sliding into the adult criminal justice system, a system many find hard to get out of.

Cornton Vale Prison Governor Ian Gunn says the prison system is struggling to contain numbers and unless it's tackled when girls are very young the consequences are inevitable.

He said: "Nine years ago there was a taskforce in Scotland saying we really should reduce the number of women in prison to about 100.

"If we didn't have home detention curfew the total [female prison] population in Scotland today would be 384. That's almost a record number.

"I can almost guarantee that that figure will go beyond 400 in the next few months."

But there have been some success stories for the youth justice teams working with young girls.

Debbie has turned her life around.

With a flat, a boyfriend and young baby girl she wants no part of the gang life she was once involved in.

She said: "I have done a lot better, I don't take drugs, I drink rarely. I'd just rather spend time at home with my boyfriend and baby.

"My friends drink and take drugs - they can do what they want, I'd rather stay in and have a family life."

Radio Scotland's Investigation into girl gang violence is on "Morning Extra" starting at 0850 on Monday 2 April.

Hear Debbie's story


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