Remanding children to solitary confinement 'degrading' breach of rights

Judge Andrew Becroft, Children's Commissioner, says it's not right to treat children worse than adults.
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Judge Andrew Becroft, Children's Commissioner, says it's not right to treat children worse than adults.

The "degrading" law that allows children to be locked up in police cells ought to be scrapped, says the Children's Commissioner.

The call follows stinging criticism of the detention of a 15-year-old boy in Christchurch's police cells, a situation police admitted was "not uncommon".

Judge Andrew Becroft, the Children's Commissioner, said the rebuilding of Child, Youth and Family (CYF) next year would be a "wonderful opportunity" to get rid of the legislation that allowed a Christchurch youth to be remanded in police custody for six days.

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in September.

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in September.

A Christchurch judge criticised the Government for allowing the 15-year-old boy to be held in solitary confinement. He called the confinement a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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The boy moved to a youth justice residence on Tuesday.

The Ministry of Social Development is considering using more beds at Te Puna Wai o Tuhinapo youth justice facility, near ...
DEAN KOZANIC/FAIRFAX NZ

The Ministry of Social Development is considering using more beds at Te Puna Wai o Tuhinapo youth justice facility, near Rolleston, in response to increased demand.

Becroft agreed with the judge's assessment, saying New Zealand signed up to the United Nations Convention and had to take it seriously.

"No child should be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. Arguably the sort of police cell confinement I've talked about is certainly degrading, and arguably inhuman," he said.

New Zealand was reviewed by a United Nations committee in September, which criticised the practice of remanding children in police cells.

"On the face of it, we're in breach of the convention, especially a six-day remand. No adult would ever spend six nights in a police cell. They'd be in a purpose-built prison with proper facilities," Becroft said.

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"We're treating children worse than we would adults, and that just can't be right."

It was important to remember these children had only allegedly committed offences, he said.

The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 gives authorities five options for remanding children beyond their first court appearance.

They can be released, released on bail, remanded into the care of a social worker, or remanded into the custody of the chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), which could then place them in a designated facility.

Becroft said the fifth option – remanding them in police custody – was only intended as a fall-back if "residences" or youth prisons were full.

The Government plans to replace CYF next year with the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, otherwise known as Oranga Tamariki.

Becroft said it was an opportunity to remove or limit the option of remanding children into police custody.

"There's lots of places, creative, safe places, where we can put young people other than behind bars. They're the sort of resources we need more of."

Inspector Glen Nalder said it was "not uncommon" for youth aged 14 to 16 to be remanded into police custody in Christchurch.

There was a provision under the legislation allowing judges to do so, Nalder said.

"In general, it's a day at a time and it's reviewed daily by the court." 

Asked whether six days was unusual, Nalder said: "It's certainly longer than is desirable."

"Obviously the welfare of young persons is foremost in our minds when they are in our detention."

Nalder said youth were kept separate from adult prisoners. They were given access to reading material and were able to receive visitors.

He declined to comment about Christchurch's youth justice facility, Te Puna Wai, or the motivation behind the judge's comments.

The judge criticised the "mothballing" of a wing Te Puna Wai, located near Rolleston, south of Christchurch.

CYF spokesman Phil Dinham said the wing was not mothballed, but only 30 of the facility's 40 beds were operational.

"We are aware of judges' concerns about placing young people in cells and we will be meeting with them soon to discuss their concerns and work on solutions. We will also be meeting with police."

CYF was also working to increase the number of youth beds available, he said.

"The fourth unit at Te Puna Wai o Tuhinapo in Christchurch is one of a number of options for increasing our capacity, and we are exploring this."

 - Stuff

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