Former cop turned politician Chester Borrows condemns the use of police cells for children

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 cells.

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 shows suicide and self-harm attempts in police custody have almost .

Now former policeman and politician Chester Borrows has come out swinging at a system he says is broken.

“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.’

Former policeman and politician, Chester Borrows

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.”

JustSpeak Director Tania Sawicki Mead

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.”

Amnesty International Executive Director Meg de Ronde

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.”


Earlier this year (September 4th) The Minister for Children, Hon. Tracey Martin said there was no immediate plan to change legislation that’s breaching New Zealand’s human rights standards under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In September last year official figures released to Amnesty International from Oranga Tamariki revealed teenagers were spending an average of more than 48 hours (2.6 days) in adult police cells in 2018, up from 1.8 days in 2014. The instances of youth in police cells for more than 24 hours also almost doubled from 2014 to 2018, with a lack of beds in youth justice residences being cited as one of the main causes.

In response, Amnesty International recommended legislation be amended to remove the option to remand a young person in police cells. This year it flagged the issue at New Zealand’s Universal Periodic Review under the UN’s Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

Our international obligations, including under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, require that children are only detained under exceptional circumstances and in an appropriate custodial environment.

These Convention rights are now also explicitly recognised in the guiding principles of the updated Oranga Tamariki legislation, which came into force on July 1 this year.