Young dealers caught selling drugs are being offered career opportunities, fitness sessions and driving lessons as part of a police scheme in Bristol.
Offenders are offered training instead of facing court but participants suspected of crimes while on the scheme would be charged, police said.
It is hoped the Call-In scheme can end the “revolving door” of reoffending.
The Home Office said operational decisions lay with chief constables but “we expect them to enforce the law”.
“How police choose to pursue investigations is an operational decision for chief constables,” the spokesperson added.
“We must prevent drug use in our communities and support people dependent on drugs through treatment and recovery,” the government department said.
‘Take a chance’
The police have told the BBC one person on the Call-In scheme had been removed and charged with dealing class A drugs. He will appear in Bristol Magistrates’ Court in September.
Another has been removed after being found in possession of a weapon.
Drug convictions in England and Wales dropped slightly in 2018 to 67,831 from 75,695 in 2017. They were at their highest in recent times in 2012 at more than 98,000 in a year.
Det Supt Gary Haskins said they wanted to “take a chance” with young dealers before they became one of these statistics.
Most of those involved have only dabbled in dealing and not taken bigger steps into that world.
Mr Haskins admitted there was a risk they could reoffend during the mandatory six-to-nine months but it was a risk Avon and Somerset Police was willing to take.
Sessions offered during the Call-In scheme, which has funding from Bristol City Council, include non-contact boxing to look at fitness and anger management and a course with Street2Boardroom, which aims to help people to apply “the hustle” they have learned on the street to legitimate business.
Mr Haskins said the scheme also helped people to get the necessary paperwork and qualifications to work in the construction industry, provided driving lessons and if appropriate, English lessons.
Potential jail terms for drug dealing
Class A, including crack cocaine, cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), heroin and LSD – up to life in prison, an unlimited fine or both
Class B, including Amphetamines, cannabis and ketamine – up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both
Class C, including anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines and khat – up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both
Stuart Pattison, crime reduction manager at the council, said the pilot was based on a deferred prosecution model.
“We know when they are entrenched like this it is very challenging to get them away from the gangs,” Mr Pattison said.
“The pilot will start with a small group and we will evaluate their outcomes properly but we are confident this, and our overall strategic approach, can have a significant impact.”
Participants are handpicked by a panel and must be aged between 16 and 21 and not have any previous convictions for sexual or violent offences.
The first selected candidates began in February and up to 16 will take part.
Bristol has a high proportion of people who inject drugs in comparison with other similar areas, and the highest number of people in treatment in England who are users of both crack cocaine and heroin.
Det Supt Haskins said other UK forces had tried similar sorts of schemes “with varying degrees of success,” but the Call-In was different because it gave young offenders a chance to stop and think before choosing to continue with a life of crime.
He said: “We’re quite strict around it. We’ve had a good look at it, this is normally for people that have made that one mistake and people we think we can work with.”
Once selected for the Call-In, participants are assessed by a panel who look at how to practically divert them from criminality.
“Why not give them a chance? What is there to lose? We send them to prison and we’ll see them again,” said Mr Haskins.
A supporter of the scheme is former drug dealer Clinton Wilson, AKA King Aggi, who was at one time the leader of one of Bristol’s most notorious gangs – the Aggi Crew.
The group of friends from east Bristol grew up to become violent and dangerous criminals, using guns to enforce their hold on Bristol’s drugs market.
Now 43, he served most of his 20s and early 30s behind bars before leaving prison six years ago.
Mr Wilson is now working with Street2Boardroom, which supports young people who have been involved in illegal activities to apply skills learned on the street to legitimate business.
“When I see them making silly mistakes obviously I want to tell them ‘if you carry on doing that, this is where you’re going to go’,” he said.
Mr Wilson grew up in St Pauls and said, after a good upbringing, at 15 he chose the “wrong path”, lured by the money that could be made dealing drugs.
Of the offenders he met in prison, he said many were “good, loving, caring, intelligent – people who can do anything”.
“They just went down the wrong thing for a minute and it all went wrong,” he said. “But once they’ve been to jail, they ain’t getting them same opportunities when they come out again.”
He said police needed to concentrate on “the worst ones” rather than those who were “half-hearted” about a life of crime.
“If they’re not cut out for it, they’ll soon get taken out of the game anyway,” he said. “It’s the ones that are cut out for it…”
The Call-In and Clinton Wilson both feature in Beyond the Front Line which airs on BBC One in the West at 23:15 BST on Wednesday 28 August and on the BBC News Channel at 21:30 BST on Friday 30 August.