Girls sometimes commit crime to escape sexual abuse or as a cry for help, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.
In a report, the Howard League argues that these girls should be treated as victims, not criminals.
Frances Crook, the group's chief executive, said some girls who resorted to prostitution were often convicted of petty offences.
"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.
"Other offences are also warning signals for sexual exploitation, for example when girls are shoplifting alcohol or taking drugs as part of a coping strategy, or where the property of an exploiter is subjected to criminal damage in an effort to obtain what they see as a form of justice.
"We should remember that these girls are children who are victims and not criminals."
Professor Jo Phoenix, from Durham University, who carried out the research, said: "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, calls 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 say.
"Criminal law is rarely an effective or appropriate response to children and young people under the age of 18 found loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution.
"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."
08 June 2011