Child criminal exploitation: The difficult decisions judges tasked with punishing Sheffield children coerced into dealing drugs are faced with

The harsh reality of child criminal exploitation has been brought in to focus as judges face the difficult task of punishing children recruited by sophisticated criminals to sell illegal substances.

Friday, 11th October 2019, 3:22 pm
Updated Friday, 11th October 2019, 7:27 pm
An old out building being used as a drugs den found on the car park. PIcture: Spoon and needles found on a bench inside the building.

As Sheffield’s police work hard to catch those responsible for flooding the city’s streets with drugs, child criminal exploitation (CCE), where criminal gangs use a range of tactics to coerce young people into doing their bidding, is becoming a common problem in the city and across the country.

This week two boys from Sheffield who were caught dealing Class A drugs when they were aged 16 and 17, respectively, and were brought before Sheffield Crown Court for sentence.

Both boys had been exploited by drug gangs.

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Scott Parton, was searched by police on January 13 last year, and found to be in possession of 64 packages containing heroin, crack cocaine and cannabis, with a combined street value of £1,810.

He had turned 17 just two months earlier.

His barrister, Chris Aspinall, described how Parton, now aged 18, was forced into dealing after racking up a cannabis debt with his dealer.

“For doing the dealing, he would have been paid £60, and that would have paid his debt. It’s clear he would have had to work for a number of days before he paid off his debt,” said Mr Aspinall.

The second boy, who is still 17-years-old and therefore cannot be identified, was brought into drug dealing at the age of 16 after being ‘exploited’ by a ‘county lines drug gang,’ a short time after being released from a prison sentence for robbery.

“It’s largely one of those operations where someone making a considerable amount of money gets others, far more vulnerable than himself, to sell drugs. He’s exploited this young man, and no doubt, others like him,” Andrew Smith told Sheffield Crown Court in mitigation.

Police caught the boy dealing drugs in Shoreham Street in the city centre on December 14 last year, and following a search he was found to be in possession of 50 wraps of crack cocaine, which were split into £10 deals, with an estimated street value of £500.

He was also found to be in possession of two wraps of cocaine with a street value of £20 as well as a knife with a serrated blade, £30 in cash, a mobile phone and eight pieces of paper with a mobile number on it, which is believed to be a ‘drug line’.

The court heard how just because the boys found dealing drugs were arrested by police, that did not mean the pressure exerted on them by those involved with the drug operations came to an end.

Mr Aspinall said Parton, of Daresbury Place, Gleadless was told he still needed to work off his drug debt after his arrest.

“21 months since his arrest, and he did come under pressure from the person he was dealing for to start dealing again because he was at liberty and still had a drug debt,” said Mr Aspinall.

And in the case of the 17-year-old, he was released under investigation for the drugs matter, but Mr Smith did not receive any ‘comeback’ for the drugs he was selling being seized because the ‘Mr Big’ behind the county lines operation got him to store a firearm instead.

Police found the boy to be in possession of a ‘Russian-style working shotgun’ that had been shortened to an overall length of 549 millimetres during a search of his property on June 22 this year.

They also found cartridges for the gun, as well as a discharged cartridge inside one of the barrels of the gun.

Parton’s sentencing judge, Judge Rachael Harrison, said the ‘problem the courts have’ is the fact that if they do not pass an immediate custodial sentence for a juvenile who has been caught dealing drugs it may mean that gangs are even more likely to try and recruit young people to sell drugs for them.

She said: “If the courts do not pass a custodial sentence for young people dealing drugs, the people exploiting them can use that to recruit others, and say: ‘Well you don’t go to prison because you’re so young’. That’s the problem the court has.”

Despite this, Judge Harrison said she had to deal with this case on an ‘individual basis’ and take his lack of previous convictions and the fact he was 17 when he committed the offences into consideration.

She sentenced Parton to a two-year community order; 150 hours of unpaid work; a 20-day rehabilitation activity requirement and a four month electronically monitored curfew for the offences of possession with intent to supply Class A and Class B drugs that he pleaded guilty to at an earlier hearing.

But Judge Sarah Wright had no choice but to jail the 17-year-old because of the mandatory minimum sentence of three years attached to possession of a prohibited firearm, which he pleaded guilty to at an earlier hearing.

She said: “I have the unhappy public duty of imposing a significant sentence.”

The boy was jailed for three years for the firearms offences, as well as charges of possession with intent to supply Class A drugs at an earlier hearing.

Judge Wright added: “You do, to some extent, choose to be involved with this sort of lifestyle, although you were clearly criminally exploited...I hope you’re beginning have some sort of realisation about the harm this kind of behaviour can cause.”

Speaking after the hearings, Detective Chief Inspector Emma Wheatcroft said: “The sentences handed to these two boys in court this week demonstrate the harsh reality of child criminal exploitation.

“County lines gangs often use a range of tactics including coercion and intimidation and in some cases, children don’t even recognise that they’re being exploited.

“There are some key signs to spot, that might indicate that someone has been targeted by a gang and is a victim of CCE. * Is the person going missing from school or home on a regular basis?* Do they have new clothes, phones or money, but can’t explain how they got them?* Are they getting lots of texts and phone calls and being particularly secretive about them? You may have noticed a significant change in their behaviour. * Have they become involved with older people or groups of new ‘friends’ who seem to be quite controlling?

“I would urge parents to speak to their children about CCE and the effects it can have. If you have any concerns, please seek help from police, social care or schools at the earliest opportunity.

“If you would like to report information, please call us 101 or speak to Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.”