Sexually exploited girls commit crime as a cry for help and should not be prosecuted, according to a report released on Tuesday.
Out of place: The policing and criminalisation of sexually exploited girls and young women, released by campaign group the Howard League for penal reform, points to cases like the recent child-sex ring in Rochdale in which girls were exploited after being targeted by gangs.
Jo Phoenix, a professor of Criminology at Durham University, who carried out the research, told The Huffington Post UK: "Because we have a framework that allows us to punish them for their misdeeds we are likely to punish them. We will send them to court.
"I think where we're dealing with children we need the government to send a very clear, very strong message that there should be no criminalisation of sexually exploited girls and women. We should not need them to tell us they are being victimised."
Frances Crook, the Howard League's chief executive, said in a statement that sexually exploited girls "can commit crime as a cry for help."
"They will, for example, shoplift in front of security guards in order to be arrested and removed from their abuser. "
Professor Phoenix said the current system "relies on the young girl herself disclosing this information.
"Say a young girl takes a cricket bat to her boyfriend's car because the night before he allowed six men to rape her. The police are called and they will arrest her.
"All the police are concerned with are the signs of criminal damage. She pleads guilty if it's tried in the youth court. Nobody has stopped to ask broader questions because they may not even know about it."
She added: "One of the complexities in the whole of this is often girls will come to police attention because of the crimes they are committing but police and youth services that are dealing with those girls may not necessarily know anything about the sexual exploitation that this girls are experiencing because the girls themselves may not have told the police, the youth court, or the youth justice board."
The group point to women like "Kim", who had several convictions for being drunk and disorderly and criminal damage. Kim was having sex in exchange for money and drugs by the time she was 18 years old. The group argue her convictions were related to her sexual abuse, which was not picked up by the authorities.
"These young women have had a lifetime, normally, a lifetime of abuse. The one group of police that are quite different in this are the ones who are trained specifically to help people who have been sexually exploited," Professor Phoenix said.
The report calls for girls be treated as child victims so they can get the help they need, rather than being classed as petty criminals.
The report called for more support for girls and better links between youth justice and sexual exploitation agencies.
It argues criminal justice agencies should also be "more sophisticated and child-centred in their approach to girls who come to their attention and should introduce more training to enable girls to be referred to more appropriate services."