STRATFORD MP Nadhim Zahawi has spoken out against the prosecution of children exploited in county lines drug operations.
The children and families minister is urging police and courts to spot the signs of grooming and step in before locking up vulnerable children.
So-called ‘county lines’ sees big city drug dealers move into towns where their faces are not known to local police to peddle drugs.
The well-organised city gangs identify drug users or other vulnerable people in their target towns and send ‘runners’ to take over their homes – known as cuckooing – to enable them to deal at street level.
Mr Zahawi said runners were often children in care whose lives ‘unravel’ fast once in contact with the criminal justice system.
In newly published guidance Mr Zahawi has urged agencies to avoid prosecuting children who are in or have left care ‘wherever possible and appropriate’.
The children and families minster said a response should be encouraged which aims to reduce reoffending.
He also said a better understanding was needed of how trauma affects behaviour and how children ‘may have been coerced and subsequently criminally exploited’.
Insp Dave Kettle from Warwickshire Police agreed criminalising children was not always the best course of action.
He said: “Many of these children are effectively victims of the drug trade and where appropriate we try not to criminalise them. Instead, we will look to offer them support to help them escape a life of crime.
“Every case has to be assessed on its individual merits and there are a range of options available to us.”
National Crime Agency figures revealed nine out of ten police forces were battling the county lines gangs, with half of the forces having encountered child drug runners.
The majority of children being recruited by county lines networks are thought to be between 15 and 17-years-old but the youngest reported was just 12.
According to the agency, they are groomed and enticed by gang members and drug debts are often inflated or staged in order to encourage young people into further dealings.
Groups will sometimes threaten family members of new recruits and use violence and intimidation to maintain their cooperation.
Leamington, Stratford and Rugby have all been targeted by county lines gangs.
A series of operations this year has led to the conviction of a number of dealers in Warwickshire.