UK’s Tougher Sentencing for ‘County Lines’ Drug Dealers Will Not Help Catch the Right People: Criminologist

January 29, 2021 Updated: January 29, 2021

The UK’s county lines drug dealers are to face tougher sentences under new rules published on Wednesday that add extra penalties for offending involving “aggravating factors” like the exploitation of children and other vulnerable people.

County lines gangs are so-called because of their practice of taking advantage of children and others to run drugs and cash across police and local authority boundaries so that they themselves can avoid detection by law enforcement.

The gangs are also known for “cuckooing,” meaning they will take over the property perhaps of someone who has addiction issues or mental health problems from where they will conduct their drug dealing activities.

Deadly addiction: so how do people get here? (FotoMaximum/iStock)
Fentanyl contained in or substituted for heroin adds danger to drug users across the state. Pennsylvania parents were discovered dead after their 7-year-old daughter told school officials she was unable to wake them. Police suspect a drug overdose on Oct. 3. (FotoMaximum/iStock)

The Sentencing Council said in a statement that the new guidelines for judges and magistrates are a response to “a change in the nature of offending” which has seen an increase in the use of minors and at-risk people to “run county lines.”

Council member Judge Rebecca Crane highlighted the pervasiveness of the crimes and said the new guidelines would give clarity on penalties for drug offenses to all those involved.

‘Serious Crime’

“Drug dealing is a serious crime, and the effects cut across all groups of people: from addicts whose lives can be destroyed to their families and the community, to people forced to take part in the trade either through coercion or threats, some of whom are young and vulnerable,” she said.

“These new sentencing guidelines will ensure that victims, witnesses, and the public will have clear information on how drug offenses are sentenced,” she added.

But James Treadwell, professor of criminology at Staffordshire University, said that the county lines mode of drug dealing is not new, and the issue of sentencing is “an area where there aren’t simple answers”

“I accept that we now use this terminology of county lines and it’s definitely happening,” he told The Epoch Times.

However, he said, “Criminal gangs traveling out of area dealing drugs is not necessarily anything new.”

In the ’90s, he explained, the urban street gangs dealing illegal drugs were already “franchising beyond their traditional territorial areas,” and became associated with the “violent territorialism that comes with those low-level street drug markets.”

‘Webs of Human Misery’

Then, he said, because gang-related activity can be “violent, vicious, nasty” and causes “webs of human misery,” what inevitably followed was police enforcement.

At the same time, he explained, it was recognized that policing did not seem to be combatting the problem and that a more “interventionist, joined-up, multi-agency approach” focusing on public health and the costs to society was needed.

This, he said, created a “tension between on the one hand the law enforcement approach, and on the other hand the public health approach” which are actually “all talking about the same thing.”

Commenting on the new sentencing guidelines he said that “What judges and Magistrates are being told is that they’ve got to treat dealers more harshly … if they exploit children or teenagers or vulnerable adults.”

But the problem is, he said, sentences are already quite tough and while the vulnerable need to be protected, some of the street-level dealers are themselves children, exploited teenagers, and vulnerable adults from chaotic, dysfunctional backgrounds who often face “multiple forms of social exclusion.”

For these there are few legitimate opportunities to make money, he said.

Young men then see other young men who wear “Prada trainers and expensive designer jackets and drive nice cars” being successful in the drug market and take them as role models.

Treadwell also said that being paid some attention by people “who seem to be initially at least interested in you” mixes with this idea that material possessions equate to success.

Lure of the Drug Market

These factors, he said, all combine to make the lure of the drug market trump considerations of right and wrong and promulgate “an incredibly selfish” attitude on the part of offenders.

He said taking the profitability out of the drug market and thereby removing the glamour that tempts young people to it would likely be more effective in curbing their involvement than over-toughening the laws.

“If they’d seen more of those people losing everything and having it taken away and not being the success stories, then actually that probably has a greater impact,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said punitive penalties are needed to protect and give respite to society from people who often end up committing “very, very, serious violence,” and from those who carry on destructive cycles of criminal behavior even though they have seen them decimate their own families.

But to see such criminals as all “bad, horrible, nasty, terrible, predatory individuals who need locking up and punishing” is not accurate, he said.

‘Naïve Liberalism’

Nor is the “naïve liberalism” that sees them all as the impoverished, “sinned against poor,” whose criminality is not their own fault, and which denies that offenders do have choices.

He said that prisons can sometimes work well and, as in the new sentencing guidelines, the exploitation of the vulnerable by street-level county lines drug dealers should be recognized.

It’s nevertheless key, he said, not to only focus on street-level drug dealing crimes, but to also catch the people much higher up in the illegal drug trade hierarchy.

These are the hardened criminals at the “high end of the tree of organized crime” who, while importing drugs into the country on a large scale, are often hiding behind apparently legitimate enterprises.

“If we’re really going to deal with the damage that the drug market does, are we getting the right people if we start at the lower end?” he asked.

“And that’s where I’m not convinced,” he added.

The new sentencing rules will come into effect from April 1 this year.