The Children’s Commissioner has called for an end to placing young people in police cells while on remand, calling it “solitary confinement” and “not acceptable”.
Police figures show 2167 children aged 10 to 16 have been placed in police custody so far this financial year.
Of those, 157 spent more than 24 hours in police cells, Ministry of Social Development figures show. Oranga Tamaki said two days was the average stay.
In Canterbury, 127 children were placed in police custody in the last year, down from 151 in 2015/16, but up from 123 the previous financial year.
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The Ministry of Justice said young people were remanded to police cells as a last resort, while police said they separated them from older prisoners and aimed to have them in custody “for the shortest time possible in the circumstance”.
Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said there were certain cases where a young person may need to be held in a police cell, such as before their first Youth Court appearance, or where a child needs to be moved to a facility elsewhere in the country.
However, the Government needed to remove the option of police cell remand in the new Oranga Tamariki legislation before Parliament.
“If the Government is being serious about being child-centred, they won’t allow children to be remanded in police cells. It’s solitary confinement and it’s not acceptable,” he said.
“It is contrary to every child rights and human rights norm and, frankly, I hope the Government moves quickly to remove the option.”
Oranga Tamariki Youth Justice Services deputy chief executive Allan Boreham said breaking the cycle of youth offending was a priority for the new ministry.
The average time a young person spent in police custody was about two days.
“Our general duty of care requires us to ensure that any child or young person detained in police custody is visited regularly and assessed until they can be safely returned home, placed in the community or in a secure residential placement.”
“Looking ahead, we will be establishing a number of community-based settings for children and young people detained in the chief executive’s custody pending their youth court hearing,” Boreham said.
“These include the development of small local remand homes and recruitment and training of specialist foster carers.
“We are also looking at ways we can provide better advice to Judges on the circumstances of the young person and how any decision made impact them in the future.
“In the interim, we have increased the capacity at Te Puna Wai by 10 more beds, to reduce the risk of vulnerable young people spending more time than is necessary in police custody.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said as soon as a young person was remanded into police cells, officials tried to find a bed in a secure unit.
“This usually happens within a day of remand.”
Police youth manager Ross Lienert said police managed the risk that went with their age and vulnerability and looked “to family, the community or other agencies to look after them”.
Youth health advocate Dr Sue Bagshaw said clear guidelines were needed on what constituted a “short term” stay for children and youth in police cells.
While the number of children and youth in police custody has decreased, there were still “too many”.
She believed police cells should not be an option for children.
“We shouldn’t have as many as that. If we were doing better care in the community for young people they shouldn’t need to get into police hands.”
In the 2015/2016 financial year, 2686 young people were place in police cells on remand, with 149 of them held for more than 24 hours.