It’s Universal Children’s Day 2019 and Amnesty International, along with Chester Borrows and JustSpeak are drawing attention to the issue of children being locked in adult police cell.
Under current New Zealand law, a child as young as 14 can be held for over 48-hours in a police cell, often because there are simply not enough beds available elsewhere.
Figures obtained by Amnesty International in September last year show the instances of youth in police cells for more than 24-hours almost doubled from 2014 to 2018, with a lack of beds in youth justice residences being cited as one of the main causes.
More recently, data from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner shows the number of young people remanded in cells are 70% Māori.
Just this week, New Zealand Police data show suicide and self-harm attempts in police custody have almost quadrupled in four years.
Now former policeman and politicia
“When I was a Minister responsible for youth justice in 2011-2014 we were aware of the numbers of young people held in cells back then and it always left us uncomfortable because we knew the conditions weren’t conducive to reasonable care of young people in custody of the state.”
Borrows says the main causes are a lack of facilities in remote areas, a lack of human resources and a lack of understanding of what leads to youth offending.
“The ‘throw away the key mentality’ means some politicians don’t care enough to change it. But if you put a 14-year-old in a cell across from an adult offender, that’s going to have a life-changing effect on that young person. You cannot just say well, they shouldn’t have got into trouble, especially when they haven’t been proven guilty.’
And more groups are adding their voices to Borrows, Amnesty International and the Children’s Commissioner’s comments.
JustSpeak Director Tania Sawicki Mead says it’s time Minister for Children Tracey Martin took action.
“Police cells are no place for children, but a failure to prioritise children’s wellbeing has meant our justice and care and protection systems have put them at risk. Minister Martin has the power to change our policy so that our young people are protected from harmful environments and communities are supported to provide care for our rangatahi.”
Amnesty International Executive Director Meg de Ronde says the system goes against global agreements New Zealand is signed up to.
“Children have a right to be safe and free from harm, even if they have committed an offence. New Zealand is not living up to international standards it’s signed up to. This is embarrassing for our nation and well time we fixed it.”
De Ronde adds the solutions are painfully simple.
“There are alternative community options to accommodate young people who need to be kept by themselves or away from family. But we need properly equipped facilities, and more of them, so young people can be held safely. In the past we led the world in legislation on youth justice. We should aspire to be the best again.”