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Soaring rate of youth held in police cells

The significant number of young people being held in New Zealand’s police cells for periods longer than 24 hours is deeply concerning, Amnesty International New Zealand said today.

“Detention in a police cell for multiple nights is no place for a child. It’s unacceptable that so many are spending several days in police cells, particularly before they have even been found guilty of an offence,” said Annaliese Johnston, Advocacy and Policy Manager at Amnesty International New Zealand.

Data released to Amnesty International reveals that instances of young people being held for more than 24 hours in a police cell rose from 62 in June 2014 to 165 in March 2018, after reaching a peak of 284 in June 2017. The average length of time spent in a police cell also increased from 1.8 days to 2.6 days in the same period.

Lack of beds in Youth Justice residences has been cited as one of the main reasons behind the high figures.

“We appreciate that Oranga Tamariki has been working towards reducing these numbers by increasing capacity in suitable and safe community-based residences and some progress has been made. But the fact remains that law exists which allows for these placements to continue, which we consider to be an ongoing breach of our international human rights obligations.

“We are concerned that young people detained in police cells can be held in solitary confinement and without adequate food, lighting and hygiene facilities, in close proximity with adult prisoners. Extended detention in these conditions can lead to long-term physical, mental and emotional harm and the very real risk of self-harm,” said Johnston.

New Zealand’s international obligations, including under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, requires that those under 18 are only detained in exceptional circumstances, and they have the right to be held in an appropriate custodial environment. A child’s best interests and welfare must be a paramount consideration.

“Seeing police cell placements at these levels raises serious questions about New Zealand’s ability to be adequately child-centered. It’s essential that we have sufficient community-based, safe placement options for our young people. It’s time to do better.” said Johnston.

Amnesty International is recommending that legislation be amended to remove the option to remand a young person in police custody, and will be raising the issue at New Zealand’s Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva in early 2019.

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