Q+A interview with Dr Pita Sharples
Sunday 9th October, 2011
Q+A interview with Dr Pita Sharples.
Points of interest:
- “80% of people in prison shouldn’t even be there… I’m saying that prisons should be for people who we need to keep away from the community,” says Associate Corrections Minister. “We’ve got a system that puts people in jail for just about anything”
- Sharples argues most prisoners should be in rehab facilities, not prisons
- “Successive governments in New Zealand have offered reforms here and there, but there is still systemic bias against Maori”
- Racism is “in their [the police] culture”
- Wants to “break culture” which “normalises police bias towards Maori and Maori bias towards police”
- Claims Maori are leaving the police force “in droves” due to bias
- Predicts Whare Oranga Ake programme will be extended to every prison
- Wants more ‘caring aspects’ such as family conferencing in the justice system
- Maori party willing to work with Labour in future, has no preference for a coalition partner
- Maori party ‘starting to learn how to work in Cabinet, and it’s been good’
The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning’s Q+A can be watched on tvnz.co.nz at, http://tvnz.co.nz/q-and-a-news
Q+A , 9-10am Sundays on
TV ONE. Repeats at 9.10pm Sundays,
9:05am and 1:05pm Mondays on TVNZ 7
Q+A is on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/NZQandA#!/NZQandA and on Twitter, http://twitter.com/#!/NZQandA
Dr PITA SHARPLES interviewed by GUYON ESPINER
GUYON ESPINER Morena, Dr Sharples.
SHARPLES - Maori Party Co-Leader
GUYON Kia ora, and thanks for joining us. You say that the entire justice system is effectively racist - the police, the courts, the whole lot. It’s a pretty big call.
PITA And we’ve known this for 15 years or two decades, and there have been reports. Most of my stats are based on reports from the Justice Department, the Police Department, the Prime Minister’s Department, an unpublished Cabinet paper and the Corrections Department and so on and outside surveys and reports that have been done.
GUYON And this is a well known statistic: Maori - about 15% of the population; over 50% of the prison population. Are you saying that if the system was fair then Maori would be about 15% of the prison population? In other words, in proportion to their make-up of the population?
PITA What I’m saying is that justice is the cornerstone of any society, any free society. And successive governments in New Zealand have offered reforms here and there, but there is still systemic bias against Maori, and it’s manifested in the apprehending, in the prosecution, in the custody, sentences and so on. So we’ve known this, and yet we’re unable to do anything about it.
GUYON But what I’m asking you is does that count for all of the disproportionate number of Maori in jail, or, for whatever the reasons or explanations, do Maori commit more crimes than other New Zealanders?
PITA Well, you know, it compounds the system, if you like. It normalises the fact. So if Maori are apprehended five times more than others for the same offence, then you’ve got to ask yourself, you know? It just makes more Maori come before them. 7.5% will get a custodial sentence over and above the same offences committed by non-Maori. And, I mean, these are real figures that we have to take into account.
GUYON The police are pretty much the gatekeepers of the justice system. If you’re going to come into contact with the justice system, the first call is going to be the police.
GUYON Are the police racist?
PITA Well, they have this bias. It’s in their culture, and so many reports just show this. But, you see, it works the other way too because they’re dealing with a lot of Maori. And Maori know the police, and someone in their family has been arrested, apprehended. And so it works two ways. So Maori have no confidence in the police to a certain extent.
GUYON Ok. Ok. What about the 12% of the police force that are Maori? Are they racist too?
PITA No, and that’s why they leave in droves. You find me many Maori who have stayed in there a long time.
GUYON Well, it’s fairly close to Maori’s make-up of the population.
PITA Well, that’s one of my sources of information. Many Maori leave the police force because they’re sick of hearing the comments about Maori-
GUYON Have you got any evidence of that?
PITA Well, just the people who I speak to, the ex-policemen that I speak to. But, you know, the comments in the locker room and things like this. You know, they just don’t like hearing their people talked about like that.
GUYON So, what’s your message to the rangatahi, to the young Maori people? Is it don’t trust the police? Is it don’t join the police?
PITA Oh, no. Well, my message is to New Zealand - look, let’s have courage. Let’s be honest. These stats go way back to 1998. They’re professional surveys. Let’s do something about it. Let’s see if we can break this culture and the position that normalises bias towards Maori and Maori towards the police.
GUYON Does it just extend to Maori, or does it extend to Pacific New Zealanders and Asian New Zealanders too?
PITA There’s a certain amount to Pacific Island people as well. But what I’m saying is that with Europeans, the contrast is marked. And we’re not talking about the numbers here; we’re talking about the propensity to be arrested, to be taken into custody - Maori - for a similar thing that they don’t take other people into custody for.
GUYON Ok, but the numbers are obviously useful to this debate. If you look at Pacific people, they are disproportionately in jail compared to Pakeha. Just hear this out for a second. Maori are in jail at double the rate of Pacific Islanders when accounting for population, so that really looks like a bit of a flaw in your argument that the police are just going after brown people.
PITA Not at all. I mean, that’s the whole reason why there are Maori more likely to be remanded in custody 11 times more than their European counterpart for the same offence, and that’s got to be staggering. See, it compounds the thing, and so that’s why you end up with a lot of Maori in prison. 80% of people in prison shouldn’t even be there. I’m not doing this because of this Maori thing; I’m doing it because of the whole justice system.
GUYON What do you mean 80% of people who are in prison shouldn’t be there?
PITA I’m saying that prisons should be for people who we need to keep away from the community. There should be other kinds of- We’ve got to look at other forms. And judges do their best, and we’ve come up with a sort of community one.
GUYON So, you’re Associate Corrections Minister. Are you saying that if you had your way, you would let 80% of people out of the jails?
PITA No, I would do what we’ve done in Hastings and in Spring Hill. Whare Oranga Ake, which is a kind of prison outside of the prison which rehabilitates prisoners in the last part of their term and puts them back into the community, because recidivism is one of the main reasons why our prisons are full.
GUYON But you seem to be saying that prison is only for people who need to be locked away because they’re a danger to the community - ie: violent offenders, serious sexual offenders. Is that your argument? That anyone else - burglary, other crimes - shouldn’t be punishable by prison?
PITA Well, I believe that we can create some other methods of rehabilitation and punishment, if you like, for those other offences and keep people out of prison. We spend $4 billion a year just running the prisons, never let alone building them.
GUYON Ok. I guess people could ask what have you done about this? Because you’re Associate Corrections Minister.
PITA And I can tell you: lots.
GUYON Well, let’s look forward to that. Your specific ministerial delegation as Associate Corrections Minister says, and I quote, ‘Providing leadership on a new crime-prevention approach to address Maori overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.’ So this has been your gig for the last three years, so why do you wait till the end of the term to say, ‘Oh, well, look, we need a review’?
PITA Not at all. I haven’t waited. I’ve spent three years creating the Whare Oranga Ake. How many people can come into a ministry and create a new type of institution, which I have done? And we’ve got two pilot ones. Soon every prison should have one, because even though it’s only each 32 beds, that’s 32 people who are not going to come back into prison. And if we had one outside of every prison- And it involves the public. The public are working in there with the inmates, but also with the prison staff. So, you see, these are major initiatives.
GUYON Has anything changed numbers-wise? I’m not expecting you to turn around decades’ worth of-
PITA Oh, but it will. It will, it will, it will. Give us time. We’ve only got two, and we just opened them this year.
GUYON So, have you made any progress on the overrepresentation of Maori in jail in your term?
PITA It’s a long-term thing. You know, as soon as we build more of these other prisons, you’ll see them. I’m changing the practises in the Maori Focus Units. Again, something which I had a part in 10 years ago.
GUYON Do you think that the government should build the new prison at Wiri? They’ve got their resource consent, but they haven’t built it yet, and we’re looking at crime going down. Would your advice be don’t build it?
PITA Well, that’s a different question entirely. We’ve got a system that puts people in jail for just about anything, and so if you’re going to do that, you need somewhere to put them, and nobody wants them in their backyard. But what I’m saying is we’ve got to change that whole philosophy, that whole kaupapa, and deal with it. Look, it’s about the courts. Like, we’ve got Rangatahi Courts, and it’s just a complete difference to the formal court.
GUYON You are saying in your speech launch for the election campaign that you would like to see an overhaul of the justice system and one which incorporates tikanga Maori and matauranga Maori. What would that look like in reality? What would be the difference, say, to 25-year-olds, one Maori, one Pakeha, looking at the same offence? Would there be any differences in the way they are treated?
PITA Family Group Conferencing is based on tikanga Maori. It was based on a committee out in the community who ran their own kind of court. The courts referred people to them, the police referred people to them, the schools and community referred people to them, and they carried out their form of justice. It was based on family, admission of guilt and working towards a reform and rehabilitation of those people. It’s probably one of the oldest restorative justice systems ever to run. It’s still running today, and Family Group Conferencing is based on that. Now, another one is the Rangatahi Courts. They’re on marae. I attend those, and I see the judge ask the elders to speak and other people to speak, and they get up and say, ‘Why are you doing this, young fella? You know, don’t you care about your race and your people?’ And the way they receive them- And everybody has a cup of tea after. The person who’s been through the mill, the lawyers, the officials, the judge - everybody. It’s sort of just a different philosophy. And I believe those sort of caring aspects can be brought into the justice system.
GUYON Ok. We’re running out of time. I just want to switch quickly to coalition politics, because that’s obviously going to be a big feature of the campaign. You said in your campaign launch that a vote for Mana or a vote for Labour is “a cry in the wilderness. It’s a vote for a protest from outside government, to complain from outside Cabinet”. And you talked about the Maori Party being a voice “at the Cabinet table”. Have you thrown your lot in permanently now with National?
PITA No. What we’ve said is that they’ve said if they get back in, they’ll be talking to us to come back to the table.
GUYON Would you support a Labour government?
PITA Of course, of course. We’ve made that quite clear. In fact, from time to time, I’ve had a protest from Labour saying, ‘You should be with us’ and ‘Our time will come’ and all this kind of stuff.
GUYON Do you have a preference?
PITA I’ve only had one experience so far, and we’re starting to learn how to work in Cabinet, and it’s been good.
GUYON All right. We’ll leave it there. Thank you, Dr Sharples, for joining us.
PITA Kia ora. Tena koe.