Girls who turn to crime to escape sexual abuse or as a cry for help should be treated as child victims and not as criminals, campaigners have said.
Many sexually exploited girls commit crime to try to escape the men who exploit them, a report by the Howard League for Penal Reform found.
These girls should be treated as child victims so they can get the help they need, rather than being classed as petty criminals, the group said.
Frances Crook, the group's chief executive, said many girls who were victims of prostitution will be criminalised for petty offences that result as a consequence of their experiences, rather than for offences directly related to prostitution such as soliciting or loitering.
"In other words, these girls can commit crime as a cry for help," she said. "They will, for example, shoplift in front of security guards in order to be arrested and removed from their abuser."
She went on: "We should remember that these girls are children who are victims and not criminals. When they come to the attention of criminal justice agencies it is vital that their sexual exploitation is recognised and properly responded to."
University of Durham Professor Jo Phoenix, who carried out the research, added: "There is a complete absence of the recognition in policy, law and practice of the economic drivers and the way that exploitation and prostitution are linked. Some of these girls will have extensive contact with the police and youth justice agencies, with the fact that they are victims of commercial sexual exploitation often remaining unknown to the professionals."
The report, Out Of Place: The Policing And Criminalisation Of Sexually Exploited Girls And Young Women, called for more support for girls and better links between youth justice and sexual exploitation agencies.
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", the campaigners said.
"The responsibility for the sexual exploitation of children or young people lies with the abuser: either the person who pays for sex, in some way, or the person who grooms the child and/or organises the exploitation."