Beneath county lines

Roger Grimshaw
Wednesday, 20 February 2019

County lines refers to the extension of drug supply from urban into rural and other settings.

Adopting the analysis of the National Crime Agency (NCA), the construction of public discussion about such forms of dealing focuses on the exploitation and victimisation of young people by predatory ‘gangs’.

In the press a more concrete narrative is crafted which at times speaks to prejudiced assumptions. For example, as part of a broader description, a reader of an online Daily Mail article would be told of a well-publicised case, that of Zakaria Mohammed, convicted of modern slavery. The writer refers to wider research on county lines showing that ‘two thirds of victims’ were white. The suspicion attached to black people who are ‘out of place’ surfaces in a quotation from a police officer.

‘One police officer in the East of England told the researchers: “We used to have black lads coming over from London, but they recruit more locals now because they’re not so noticeable.”’

Where do these vulnerable children come from?

Unfortunately, as the child sexual exploitation scandals have also revealed, vulnerable children are exposed to being targeted by the unscrupulous in several ways. And how does this come about? The Children’s Commissioner has reported long-term declines in services for children in need, especially those whose needs fall below the threshold that might lead to them becoming looked after by local authorities. Under austerity regimes, local authorities are increasingly becoming social care agencies of last resort while the tides of need flow around them. According to public health experts, public health services to curb violence have been markedly constrained over the period of austerity.

The Black Review

Home Secretary Sajid Javid has asked Dame Carol Black to undertake a review of the ways in which the drug market is fuelling serious violence. However, reports suggest that the Black Review will exclude consideration of the current drug laws, a point that has not escaped the attention of Transform, an organisation which campaigns for change. Indeed, it is important to develop a common understanding of the mechanisms by which demand for drugs is shaped by current drug laws and treatment availability, with treatments in decline over recent years.

Equally it is crucial to investigate the quantities available to dealers and the ease of supply. With the rise of internet dealing and mail services, connections between sellers and buyers have been facilitated. However, when volumes of high-value commodities increase there is a potential for existing markets to be destabilised and for rivalries to turn into violent confrontations.

What do we know about violence and drug markets?

In his classic study of homicide in New York, Professor Ben Bowling traced how the homicide rate from 1985-1991 was closely correlated with conflicts over the distribution of crack cocaine. The NCA has recently associated county lines with crack cocaine as well as heroin. In fact, we know a great deal about how violence has emerged from criminalised drug market changes. The challenge for the Black Review will be to consolidate previous research and current data into a convincing picture that charts the extent and depth of the problems so inadequately addressed by systematic criminalisation.

The Serious Violence Strategy continues a twin-track policy of ramping up criminal justice intervention while at the same time seeking ways of investing in prevention. How coherent, non-discriminatory and sufficient it will be in practice should engage the critical attention of all those with an interest in young people’s welfare.

Roger Grimshaw is Research Director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies