Give us feedback

Exploitation of children by ‘county lines’ gangs – children should be safeguarded not prosecuted

County Lines Gang Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply, National Crime Agency, November 2016

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has recently published a second report on the drug distribution model known as ‘county lines’. ‘County Lines’ is a national issue which involves the exploitation of vulnerable young people and adults by violent gang members in order to move and sell drugs across the country. The gangs recruit vulnerable people, often children, to act as couriers and to sell drugs. The report identifies the exposure to harm children may face from these gangs and encourages authorities to safeguard rather than prosecute affected children.


Whilst there is no official definition, typical county lines activity involves a gang (usually made up of young males) from a large urban area travelling to smaller locations (such as a county or coastal town) to sell class A drugs, specifically crack cocaine and heroin. They may challenge an existing group from the local area or another county lines enterprise, which often causes incidents of violence.

Prosecutors are encouraged to consider all available charges when considering a prosecution in connection with ‘County Lines’ offending and where they are sure that they have evidence of deliberate targeting, recruitment and significant exploitation of young and vulnerable people they are encouraged to consider bringing charges under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (paras. 14.4 and 14.5).

The report highlights indicators in a child’s behaviour or circumstances which should alert professionals to the possibility that they are being exploited by a gang.

The Key Findings of the report suggest the following:

  • County lines gangs pose a significant threat to vulnerable adults and children upon whom they rely to conduct and or facilitate this criminality. Exposure to gang exploitation has the potential to generate emotional and physical harm.
  • Typical county lines methodology involves gangs exploiting children to deliver drugs from the urban to county location using intimidation, violence, debt bondage and grooming.
  • 70 per cent of areas reported violence used towards other members usually runners, when they made mistakes or were accused of stealing. If drugs or profits are lost by a gang member due to being robbed or arrested they will be held responsible for the loss and take on that debt, which can have serious consequences for that individual (para. 10.3).

Section 8 specifically deals with the exploitation of children. Key points are as follows:

  • Children continue to be exploited by county lines gangs. Children from urban areas are recruited by gangs to courier drugs and money to the county location (para. 8.1).
  • Children are reported to have stayed in very poor conditions at cuckooed addresses that generally belong to Class A Drug Users (para. 8.2).
  • Gangs utilise vulnerable children because they are a relatively inexpensive resource and are easily controlled (para. 8.3).
  • Whilst male children are most commonly exploited, almost half the areas also reported the use of female children (para. 8.8). Children aged 12-18 are being exploited, with 15-16 years being the most common age of involvement for under 18s (para. 8.4).
  • Most commonly children from poor backgrounds engaged in offending behaviour, facing difficulties at home or looked after children are amongst those most vulnerable to gangs. They are often listed as a missing person and/or have poor school attendance (para. 8.9).
  • Some children engage with gangs in circumstances where the potential threats or likelihood of encountering harm is not initially apparent. However, a number of areas reported that children have been assaulted or threatened with violence. A small number of areas stated children had been controlled under debt bondage and one area reported a child had been abducted (para. 8.12).
  • Although child sexual exploitation (CSE) is not the driving factor in county line gangs exploiting children, a clear link between county lines exploitation and child sexual exploitation exists (para. 9.2).


National Crime Agency (2016) County Lines Gang Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2016

Also see our



In light of the encouragement to seek prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, lawyers acting for child defendants should consider whether the section 45 statutory defence for victims of slavery or trafficking who commit an offence is available to their clients. Once it is established that a child is a victim of trafficking for the purposes of exploitation, the relevant consideration is whether there is a sufficient nexus between the trafficking for the purposes of exploitation and the offence; it is not necessary to go so far as to show there was compulsion to commit the offence required in the case of an adult (R v VSJ and Others (Anti-Slavery International Intervening) [2017] EWCA Crim 36, para. 35). The definition of trafficking is wide and a child could be the victim of trafficking even if they have never been out of the United Kingdom (see section 2 Modern Slavery Act 2015).

Crown prosecutors should be reminded of the Full Code Test under paragraph 4.8 of the Code for Public Prosecutors; stage 2 of the Test requires prosecutors to consider whether there are any public interest factors tending against prosecution which outweigh those factors tending in favour of prosecution. When acting for children who may have been exploited by county lines gangs, lawyers should consider all their vulnerabilities and the possibility of a successful defence being run under section 45 MSA 2015, with a view to arguing against prosecution. Help should also be sought from other professionals to protect and support vulnerable children affected by this problem.