United Kingdom

Judges ordered to get tough on county lines drug gangs and pass tougher sentences for some crimes

County lines drug runners face tougher sentences under rules announced yesterday.

Judges and magistrates must treat dealers more harshly if they exploit children, teenagers or vulnerable adults.

The rules, which take effect on April 1, also make a more serious crime of 'cuckooing' – when a gang takes over the home of a vulnerable or intimidated person to use as a base.

Lord Justice Holroyde, chairman of the Sentencing Council, said the move reflects the 'changing nature of offending... concerns about the exploitation of young or vulnerable people in the commission of drug offending'.

In the past, only criminals believed to be gang leaders were given longer jail terms over exploitation of children or those unable to resist their threats.

However the new guidelines come with a warning to judges on sentencing of black drug gang members.

They said 'there is evidence of a disparity in sentence outcomes for this offence which indicates that a higher proportion of black, Asian and other ethnicity offenders receive an immediate custodial sentence than white offenders'.

County lines drug runners face tougher sentences under rules announced yesterday. Judges and magistrates must treat dealers more harshly if they exploit children, teenagers or vulnerable adults [Stock photo]

The warning follows complaints from academics that the way county lines is 'reported in the press is extremely racialised' and so the new sentencing rules could be unfair to minority offenders.

Lord Justice Holroyde said: 'Changes have been made to reflect the changing nature of offending, reflecting the concerns raised by some about the exploitation of young or vulnerable people in the commission of drug offending; the increase in county lines offending; and, for some drugs, the increase in purity or yield of the drugs.'

He added that there were 'disparities' in sentencing drug dealers of different ethnicities. 'The Council was concerned that the sentencing guidelines should not contain anything which might contribute to or exacerbate disparities and so we have taken some measures to address those issues,' Lord Justice Holroyde said.

The rules, which take effect on April 1, also make a more serious crime of 'cuckooing' – when a gang takes over the home of a vulnerable or intimidated person to use as a base [Stock photo]

The new guidelines said there will in future be 'aggravating factors that could increase sentences for offenders who use the home of a vulnerable person - so-called cuckooing - exploit children or run county lines in their offending'.

The rules now 'recognise that they are not limited to offenders in a leading role and that offenders lower in the offending chain may also exploit vulnerable people or children in their offending'.

Figures published by the Council yesterday show that over the past decade punishments for dealers of hard drugs have become tougher. 

The average sentence for someone convicted of supplying heroin or cocaine - leaving out the most lenient or most severe sentences which can distort the picture - went up from three years' jail in 2009 to three years and four months in 2019.

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