Too many children held in police custody - inspectors
Too many children are being held for too long in police custody in Northern Ireland, criminal justice inspectors said.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate Northern Ireland (CJINI) called for new bail legislation.
More than 2,400 children and young people aged 17 or under were detained in PSNI accommodation during 2014-15.
Because of the lack of alternatives and their inability to seek their own arrangements in the way adults do, children and young people are more likely to be held in police cells than adults are once bail is denied, a report by the watchdog said.
Chief inspector Brendan McGuigan said: " While this may sometimes be necessary, it should be possible for custody officers to release young people to other suitable accommodation so that they are not held in police custody after being charged with an offence.
"This is particularly relevant for 'looked after' children or young people and we have recommended legislative reform be taken forward, during the next Northern Ireland Assembly mandate, to bring forward a Bail Act in respect of the right to bail for children and young people."
In 2014, there were 245 admissions to Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre using the most common police powers, of which 95 were relating to children from care homes. Of these 245 admissions, 110 were released at court the following day.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate Northern Ireland said the use of the centre was not considered a suitable alternative to police custody, given the long travel distances.
It noted official guidance that children are not to be held in police custody other than in "exceptional cases" and a court finding that health trusts should provide accommodation.
Custody officers did engage social workers in seeking alternatives.
In July 2013 the Justice Minister announced a consultation on proposed changes to bail legislation and it was intended that a Bail Act would be brought before the Assembly in 2015. It was decided that further discussions were required on the issues around bail for children and young people prior to legislation being progressed.
The report said: "To date, and at the time of writing however, due to other legislative priorities, a Bail Act for Northern Ireland has not been brought before the Committee for Justice.
"Inspectors believe that a Bail Act is necessary to resolve the difficulties with the existing legislation to reduce the numbers of children and young people held in police custody after charge."
Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said it was encouraging that inspectors noted progress on custody arrangements and reforms that are now in place.
He said collaboration and connected support services were essential to meet complex needs and said they were working with Stormont's health authorities on future healthcare in custody.
"PSNI has also been proactive in engaging with the Health and Social Care Board to address the management of medication in PSNI custody.
"Similarly, the PSNI has been working extensively with Department of Justice on legislative reforms in relation to dealing with children and young people in police custody."