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Māori In Prison: Where’s The Transformational Change?

The 2020 election has given the PM Jacinda Ardern a powerful platform to get Labour’s policies into New Zealand legislation. Labour’s post-election agenda has seen them highlight child poverty, affordable housing, and COVID-19 to create “transformational change” to the significant inequalities that currently hinder New Zealand’s wellbeing. However, where is the transformational change when it addresses the over-representation of Māori in our criminal justice system? The over-representation of Māori is an area that the government is currently ignoring, and should be of utmost importance.

New Zealand has the most targeted criminal justice system in the world. Māori currently make up 51.7% of the prison population, which is a 3.5x over-representation per capita. In Women's prisons, Māori women make up 63% of the female prison population. Auckland University professor Tracey McIntosh considers these alarming statistics as proof that New Zealand's justice system is regarded as a system that incarcerates Māori in a targeted way. If this isn't alarming enough, the prison population's racial disparities are less for African Americans in the United States, who are over-represented in the US prison population by 2.8x. The NZ government should see the racist bias towards Māori as a failure to improve Māori wellbeing, which they have praised themselves for doing.

Ardern and the Labour party quietly came out with their 2020 justice manifesto eight days before the election, praising their ability to lower the prison population by 14.5% to 9,000 over their first term in government – but without noting that for Māori, their rate of imprisonment is continuing to increase. By hiding this information, Labour has been able to sugarcoat its success, knowing they aren't addressing our criminal justice system's key issue.

My question to Ardern would be: where is the promised, transformative change to the justice system? Especially for Māori? Where are the policies that prevent Māori whanau, hapu, and iwi from future generations of discrimination and segregation? In a 2017 report, the Ministry of Justice admitted that our criminal justice system has evolved from discriminatory ideas that still haven't been corrected. 2020 provides Ardern and her platform a significant opportunity to correct these wrongs.

The increase of Māori police officers to 13% of the task force and the $98 million into their Māori Pathways program can be considered significant. Instead, I would call this Symbolic Implementation. Symbolic implementation sees the government announcing certain policies that only touch the surface of deep-rooted problems. Tracey McIntosh addresses the implementation of justice policies as rarely having strategies that reduce Māori over-representation or positive Māori implications. Over the last 30 years, every government has announced criminal justice policies that continue to fight the small battles but not solve how to win the war.

What needs to be done is to bring Māori to the forefront, so decisions are made for Māori. We need to see Māori at the head of the table, making decisions. We have never had a Police Commissioner who was Māori. We currently have the first Māori Minister of Corrections in Kelvin Davis. It took 90 years for the first Māori Minister of Police in Sir Peter Tapsell, who lasted in the role for under two years, and then took another ten years for the second in Paula Bennett, who was in the position for ten months. By having a Māori voice in these crucial power positions, change becomes a lot more obtainable. No one can do anything in the short stints these three ministers have had, change takes time, but we don’t have the time to wait another 180 years.

Creating Māori justice strategies that lead to a separate justice system for Māori should be the end goal. Moana Jackson highlighted that the imposition of non-Māori criminal justice strategies had created an institutional bias towards Māori. Riki Mihaere also highlights that a Kaupapa Māori and whanau-centered approach can give Māori a systemic approach that follows their worldview that results in socially just outcomes.

The Department of Corrections and Minister Davis have introduced their 5-year plan to lower Māori imprisonment known as Hokai Rangi. Hokai Rangi aims to reduce the prison population down to 16% to reflect Māori in New Zealand's general population. The strategy includes giving access to more substantial Kaupapa Māori services in every prison, and co-designing the future of Corrections in tandem with Māori, to uphold stronger community and rehabilitative measures. This is a strong foundation that - over the next 5-10 years – will needs to be built upon, to make sure that the prison population is going down for Māori as well.

The over-representation of Māori in prisons is a clear illustration of a broader systemic issue that continues to discriminate and oppress Māori in their homeland. Governments continue to fund reports and strategies like Te Tangi o te Manawanui which repeatedly say that the discrimination against Māori within our justice system won't change until a Māori worldview is used. They continue not to be acted upon. and instead money is thrown into strategies that continue to fail. The money wasted on bad policies is why Tracey McIntosh considers the criminal justice system a fully funded failure. Progress like Hokai Rangi has been needed to be enacted because – morally – the situation should never have got this bad.

We don’t have another 180 years to wait for real transformative justice to occur. By the sounds of what Ardern and the NZ government consider transformative change towards the criminal justice system, the issue of Māori over-representation may never see it.

Tobey Keddy is a Criminology student at the University of Auckland.

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