Concern over detention centre use
Police inappropriately used a juvenile justice centre to hold children in Northern Ireland, an inspectorate said.
Nearby PSNI stations referred young people for short periods because of "postcode expediency" before court appearances, according to the Criminal Justice Inspectorate.
The high-security Woodlands in Bangor, Co Down, deals with some of the most disturbed children in society and costs almost £10 million a year to run.
Last year almost half its admissions were authorised using special police powers. The rate detained by this route almost trebled since 2008 despite concerns about the impact on the young people.
The inspectorate's report said: "The high level of Police and Criminal Evidence (legislation) admissions appeared to be based more upon geographical proximity to the juvenile justice centre than any other criterion and it was clear the juvenile justice centre was being used when no alternative accommodation was available for these children.
"This was inappropriate use of the facility which costs around £9.3 million per year, and while it may have provided stability at a time of crisis, it was not the juvenile justice centre's primary purpose."
Stays never lasted longer than a weekend and many children detained using PACE legislation were only there for hours, according to the watchdog.
The inspectorate said Woodlands accommodates some of the most difficult and disturbed children in society and prevents them from causing mayhem in communities and the residential care system.
It can hold up to 48 boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 17. Children can be sent by criminal courts, either on remand or on a sentence.
The other route is following proceedings taken by the PSNI. This is usually overnight or during a weekend, until they can be produced in court.
Although in 2013-14 the number of individuals sent fell below 200 (196) for the first time in four years, several were admitted on multiple occasions, the report said.
This was at least partly due to police success in targeting prolific offenders in the community, the inspectorate found.
It meant the centre had become busier in admitting and discharging children, even though the number of individuals had been fairly steady for four years.
Half of transfers from police custody came from Greater Belfast and Bangor police stations.
The report said: "The Belfast rate is unsurprising, since it is the largest centre of population in Northern Ireland. However the high rate from Bangor police station suggests proximity was a factor in the juvenile justice centre being used for PACE admissions; and police from further afield were less likely to take children there for short periods of detention.
"The PSNI acknowledged that some districts used PACE detention more readily than others and that geography and pragmatism could be important determinants in deciding how to deal with a child offender with chronic social problems."
Inspectors said around half of all PACE admissions were subsequently released at their first court appearance.
"This begs the question of whether those children needed to be sent into juvenile justice centre custody at all. It also suggests that juvenile justice centre placements were used for some because there was no alternative accommodation available."
The report noted a clear pattern of increased PACE admissions at weekends, with twice as many on Saturday or Sunday compared to any other day of the week, which has implications for staff deployment.
Chief inspector of criminal justice Brendan McGuigan said alternatives must be found to the centre being used as a temporary, short term location for children who breach children's home rules, or whose parents/guardians are refusing to accept them back home.
"Committing children to custody should be an action of last resort and not - as in the case of Police and Criminal Evidence placements - a postcode expediency."