In Britain, there have been growing concerns over the increasing female prison population and treatment of girls and women by the criminal justice system (see Carlen and Worrall, 2004; Hedderman, 2004; Batchelor, 2005; Hutson and Myers, 2006; Sharpe, 2009). In particular, there has been a rising female prison population in Scotland which has been associated with greater punitive controls over the behaviour of women (McIvor and Burman, 2011). The British press have depicted a social problem of certain young women becoming more violent and have attributed this to womenâ€™s liberation, particularly in the night time economy (MacAskill and Goodwin, 2004; Gray, 2006; Evening News, 2008). These concerns have attracted widespread media and political attention leading to a steady growth in academic research exploring the apparent rise of violent young women (Burman et al., 2003; Burman, 2004b; Batchelor, 2005). Despite this, there are relatively few studies that examine responses to young women with an emphasis on violent offences. Furthermore, there is a lack of research that has examined the role police officers have played in the control and depiction of young womenâ€™s violence.
This research investigates the perceptions of and responses to young women depicted as violent from police officers in Scotland. Thirty three qualitative interviews were carried out with front line police officers in 2008 to investigate social control mechanisms employed to regulate the behaviour of young women. The research utilised feminist perspectives to develop an understanding of how young women deemed as violent face formal and informal mechanisms of social control from police officers.
The study challenges the apparent increase in violence among young women and instead argues that institutional controls have contributed to young women being labelled as violent. Changes in police practices and zero tolerance approaches towards violence have resulted in a net widening effect that has impacted on the number of young women (and men) being brought to the attention of the police for violent offences. It is argued that this mechanism of institutional control could be a contributing factor towards the rise in the number of young women being charged for violent offences. Police discretion on the basis of gender did have an influence on arrest practices for some of the officers, but there was insufficient evidence to suggest the police officers responded any harsher or more lenient towards women. However, what was apparent was that police officers believed women needed to be â€˜controlledâ€™; they perceived them as more unmanageable than men and this defiance towards authority resulted in women being arrested. Women depicted as violent remain to be categorised on the basis of socially constructed gender norms and it is argued that this mechanism of discursive control continues to locate violence within the realm of masculinity. In conclusion, women who are depicted as violent are portrayed as unfeminine and in need of greater social control which is exercised through both formal and informal measures by police officers.