Dr Paul Andell, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Suffolk, and Professor John Pitts, Vauxhall Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Bedfordshire, and Visiting Professor of Criminology at the universities of Suffolk and Essex explore a case study on young people’s gang involvement and engagement with the national and international drugs trade.
This article describes a Rapid Assessment Exercise commissioned by a local authority to inform an evidence-based multi-agency response to the involvement of vulnerable children and younger adolescents in illicit drug trafficking.
The research was commissioned by a local authority in an English County Town, The researchers analysed relevant quantitative data held by social welfare, health, educational and criminal justice agencies.
Interviews were conducted with professionals from these agencies and three key informants previously involved in the illicit drugs trade. Two focus groups were conducted with professionals and three with gang-involved and gang-affected children and young people. The quotations in this article were all derived from these individual interviews and focus groups.
The article considers whether the emergence of this problem is simply a result of local contingencies or whether it represents an instance, and a moment, in the evolution and transformation of, the English street gang and the ‘County Lines’ model of drug distribution. In an attempt to answer this question the article considers three models of gang and drug market evolution and assesses their relevance to developments in the Town.
County Lines – Drugs and the Town
Whereas in other areas the purveyors of County lines simply ‘muscled-in’ on local dealers, because of the connection between the two groups and friends and family from London, the local groups agreed what was in effect a franchising deal in which they purchased the drugs from the London gangs which were then distributed in the Town, and eventually throughout the County by some of the Town’s more ‘vulnerable’ children and young people.
In what became the two gang-affected areas in the Town there was a sizeable indigenous population of socially disadvantaged children and young people, some of whom were, or had been, in the Care of the local authority and others who were known to the Youth Offending Service and/or had been consigned to a Pupil Referral Unit.
The Town also had more than its fair share of out-of-county placements of young people who had proved ‘troublesome’ in their home authorities or who had been moved by ‘the authorities’ because their gang involvement had placed them in mortal danger.
Between 2012 and 2015 the Town saw an influx of intermittently employed Romanian and Polish migrants and their children and between November 2014 and November 2015 there was a doubling of the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people being ‘looked after’. Other young people were also resettled in the Town upon release from a local Young Offender Institution.
However, there was an acute shortage of places to house them and many of the older adolescents were placed in ‘unsuitable’ hostels and B&B hotels, in the poorer parts of town adjacent to what were to become gang-affected neighbourhoods. Some of these young people were already gang affiliates and although many were not, this was one of the places where the ‘Youngers’ who would distribute the drugs around the County were recruited.
An Ofsted inspection of Children’s Services in 2016, found that 39% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training of which 46% were aged between 19 and 21.
A study undertaken in 2012 found that the Town was eighth out of 47 local authorities in the region in terms of youth unemployment and that between 2007 and 2012 the 16-24 year old unemployment rate had risen from 4.6% to 8.1%. This hike in unemployment was attributed to the closure of local businesses as well as cuts in local government services. At this time the local Chamber of Commerce reported that 1,600 young people in the county aged between 16 and 18 were not involved in any form of education, training or work and that more than 4,000 18 to 24-year-olds were unemployed.
The predicament of these young people was compounded by cutbacks in staff and resources which led to the closure or shrinkage of youth services and the effective abandonment of face-to-face supervision of ex-offenders by the local Community Rehabilitation Company. Because of these factors, professionals working with these vulnerable young people described the advent of gang conflict variously as the result of a ‘perfect storm’, ‘an accident waiting to happen’ and a ‘slow-motion car crash.