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Major Change Required to Address Māori Inequality


After decades of failing Māori, New Zealand’s Corrections Department has been called to task for breaching its responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi.

11 April 2017

Today, the Waitangi Tribunal has released its findings on an urgent inquiry into a claim by former Corrections officer Tom Hemopo.

The figures make for grim reading. Despite the department’s goal of reducing reoffending by 25 percent in 2017, our total prison population is expected to reach an all-time high of 10,000 this year. On current figures, at the least 5,000 will be Māori, mostly young Māori men.

A report released by the Department in April 2015 records that Māori youth comprise almost two-thirds of all youth in prison (65 percent) up from 56 percent in 2006 suggesting that this number, 5000, may be even higher.

The Tribunal spoke of the “grossly disproportionate, decades-long, and increasing Māori overrepresentation in the nation’s prisons”, which it said was a “devastating situation for Māori, and for the nation”.

Despite this, the Crown through the Department of Corrections had not prioritised addressing disproportionate Māori reconviction and reimprisonment rates which contribute to this devastating situation. There was no specific plan, strategy, target or budget to reduce Māori reoffending. The Tribunal found this to be a direct breach of the Treaty principles of active protection and equity.

Tom Hemopo was a corrections officer for 25 years, and retired frustrated at the barriers he found when trying to apply Tikanga Māori to help the many men and women he worked with to break the cycle of reoffending. Determined to try and force the system to change, this is the second of two claims he has brought to the Waitangi Tribunal. The first was successful, but resulted in little change. This time, the Tribunal is calling for immediate action.

That includes creating a whole new strategy in partnership with Māori for reducing Māori reoffending rates, setting accountability targets and allocating a specific budget to bringing Māori reconviction and reimprisonment rates in line with non- Māori, and amending the Corrections Act 2004 to state the Crown’s relevant Treaty obligations to Māori.

Mr Hemopo’s lawyer, Roimata Smail, says the recommendations are a good start, and should be implemented immediately. “The Tribunal totally accepted how serious the situation is,” she said.

Ms Smail said both Māori and the wider community had shown very active interest in the outcome of the hearing, and it would be unwise for the Crown and the Department to ignore the findings.

“This report is really only the first step along the way in a long overdue national discussion about our Corrections system. The Crown will eventually need to face the wider issue of whether our Corrections system is keeping us safe or actually causing more crime, and whether it is fair on Māori. Those supporting this claim will continue to push for a fundamental rethink of our Corrections system.”

Mr Hemopo said that he is pleased that the Tribunal’s report will help bring the inequality in New Zealand prisons to light, and that he and the iwi supporting the claim will be watching closely to make sure the Department follows the Tribunal recommendations. “This has been a long journey for me to get help for our young Māori men and women hidden away in prisons. This report is an important step, because all New Zealanders need to know what goes on in our Corrections system”.


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