County lines (‘CL’) actively targets and exploits vulnerable youth as a means of capital accumulation through access to less saturated drug markets. This profitable model is unlikely to decline as CL bears the characteristics of our neoliberal age and is a symptom of larger social issues that will only be exacerbated under current policy. Now that the new nature of the drug trade is laid bare, we cannot plead ignorance; we must be able to justify how we respond.
Criminalising victims is not the answer, for it is neither fair nor just. The UK is obliged under international and EU law to ensure that victims of trafficking (‘VOT’s) are not punished for offences committed during the course of, or as a consequence of, being trafficked. Additionally, Article 26 of the European Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings 2005 and Article 8 of Directive 2011/36/EU recognises an obligation of non-punishment for victims. Within our legal framework, where the common law defence of duress is absent, observance of Article 26 is achieved through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion or on a case-by-case basis (R v N, R, Lee  EQCA Crim 189).
Such prosecutions also serve to undermine the public interest. Prosecuting children who have been criminally exploited only ensures that the cycle of violence and exploitation continues. The lines in CL are blurred as, to survive, youth will quickly move from victim to perpetrator. Lack of early intervention and identification, and the consequent prosecution of these youths, ensures the continued exclusion and marginalisation of already disenfranchised communities.
CL is properly defined as human trafficking, however there is a clear tension in prosecuting such crimes using slavery legislation. In the few successful prosecutions, the perpetrators have been black and mixed-race youth. Undoubtedly, they caused harm, but to claim the ‘slave holders’ of today are young black men from the same communities as those they exploit allows the white masterclass to evade any responsibility for the very conditions they fostered.
Whilst most have heralded the use of modern slavery legislation as a positive step, it can be argued that this legislation has been employed as a tool to silence real concerns about slavery old and new. Its use allows the state to distance itself from its culpability in the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Further, it ignores the slave-like conditions that the most vulnerable citizens confront daily in our deregulated markets and framework of austerity.
The government is responsible for the structural conditions that drive youth into the hands of traffickers. It is the government’s drug policy, based on fictitious morality as opposed to scientific evidence that fosters the conditions that fuel exploitation. These considerations must be at the heart of any meaningful reform. Until then, the least we can do is appreciate that we have failed these vulnerable communities time and time again and recognise that it is neither just nor fair, nor in the public interest to criminalise children for their involvement in county lines drug dealing.
Contributed by Eliah English