21 Jun 2021

Law allowing youth to be held in police cells must be 'repealed urgently', Children's Commissioner argues

12:18 pm on 21 June 2021

Warning: This story contains reference to suicide and self-harm

The Children's Commissioner wants to repeal a section of law enabling the youth court to remand young people in police cells.

prisoner hand in jail

Between July 2019 and June 2020, five youth self-harmed or attempted suicide while being held in a police cell. Photo: 123RF

In the 12 months to 30 June last year, more than 110 teenagers were detained in police cells for at least 24 hours.

During that time, five young people self-harmed or attempted suicide in the cells, with the youngest being just 14 years old.

Growing up, youth advocate Tupua Urlich was no stranger to the cells. They were not healthy spaces, even if police tried to look after those in custody, he said.

"You're in there with people who are often high on drugs, super-aggressive and if you could just imagine being locked in a cage," Urlich said.

"People are banging on the doors, picking up their whole mattresses, slamming them on doors.

"It's always noisy. There's swearing, there's yelling. There's so much anger in that space and for a young person to be in there, it's super-unhealthy."

Youth advocate Tupua Urlich spent time in police cells when he was younger, and says they're not a healthy environment for a young person to be in

Youth advocate Tupua Urlich spent time in police cells when he was younger, and says they're not a healthy environment for a young person to be in Photo: RNZ/ Samuel Rillstone

After a childhood in care, he faced the world as a teenager dislocated from relatives and said the state did not invest time into restoring his family relationships.

Angry and frustrated, self-harm became a part of his life.

"There was one incident where I had to be detained by the police. I totally agree that it was necessary at that time but I wasn't provided the support that I needed.

"I really needed specialist support there, rather than being strapped into a chair in a cell."

Iwi and communities assistant police commissioner Chris de Wattignar said police did not want to put young people in their cells.

"It's absolutely not ideal and I think we'd be the first to say we'd rather not have youth in custody."

De Wattignar said police were working hard to reduce the number of young people detained in custody, and the figure had been dropping.

The total number of young people who came into police custody in 2017 was just over 2100, according to police data. At the end of last year that had fallen to 1899.

Efforts were also underway to stop young people from entering the system in the first place, including by youth development teams.

"So where a young person may make a mistake, instead of ending up at a family group conference, or heaven forbid a youth court, there is actually a range of other things that we can do now, that we haven't done in the past," de Wattignar said.

As a young district court judge, Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft presided over the death of a teenager in police custody.

In the early hours of the morning, the young person took their own life in what was thought to be a suicide-proof cell.

It was a case that would draw tears from stone, said Judge Becroft, and it had a profound and enduring impact.

"I've never faltered in my view since then that we shouldn't be putting children and young people in police cells."

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says detaining young people in police cells is a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Photo: Supplied

Becroft said there were times when a cell stay might be needed, such as before a first youth court appearance or afterwards, while waiting to be transferred elsewhere.

But he wanted to repeal a section of law enabling the Youth Court to remand a young person into police custody.

"It was only ever put in as a stopgap in 1989, as a court order into a police cell that can be for several days and in the old days sometimes weeks," Becroft said.

"Now that should not continue, it could be easily repealed and it ought to be repealed and my plea is that it be repealed urgently."

Detaining young people in the cells was also an unarguable breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to Becroft.

He said the convention, which New Zealand ratified in 1993, made it clear children and young people should be treated in a way that was consistent with dignity and age.

It also stated they should not be subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment.

"I think being put in an adult police cell with spartan facilities, sometimes with the lights on 24/7 to ensure line of sight, to ensure there is no self harm, with limited access to family, education and good food in every way constitutes a breach," he said.

Urlich wanted to see wider social change, so young people did not get to the point where they needed to be in the cells.

"It's really easy to look at behaviour without understanding it's source, because actually, the source is on us all as society," he said.

"Our young people are feeling these ways because of things in their environment and we are their environment."

Oranga Tamariki youth justice system director Phil Dinham said no young person should be held in the cells for more than 24 hours.

"Police and us are working really hard together daily to make sure that these are minimised," he said.

"And not only have we over halved the number in the last couple of years, you have to understand that's with the inclusion of 17-year-olds as well.

"So that added about 20 or 25 percent volume of young people going through the youth justice system."

Oranga Tamariki had also introduced overnight rapid response teams in areas of high demand, such as Waikato and Rotorua.

Those specialist youth justice staff could respond at police stations to check on the young person, and assess if they were showing signs of trauma, risk or distress.

But in some cases, Dinham said holding young people in a cell worked better for the person involved.

He reflected on a recent situation where a teenager agreed to stay in the cell after being arrested late at night, rather than being transferred to a home organised by Oranga Tamariki.

The Green Party has thrown its support behind the calls to repeal the law allowing the youth court to remand young people to police cells.

Green Party justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said the figures were harrowing.

"It's absolutely horrific that we're putting children into police cells for 24 hours or longer," Ghahraman said.

"No one should be in police cells for 24 hours ... they're meant for very temporary, emergency holding of people before they go to court maybe. But we seem to be misusing them.

"It's time to change the law."

Community placements were a good alternative to detaining young people in cells, she said.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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