National | Mt Eden Prison

More Māori in jail than Pākehā but overall number falling

Māori are overrepresented in prisons now more than ever even though the Hōkai Rangi strategy was started three years ago, to address the disproportionate number of Māori in the justice system.

New Department of Corrections figures show the prison population has fallen to its lowest number in 14 years. However, 54 percent of those prisoners are Māori. The situation is even worse for wāhine Māori, who represent 65 percent of the female prison population.

Ngāti Porou criminologist and Māori justice advocate Juan Tauri said that he was not surprised by the figures and didn’t think that all of the blame should be put on Corrections.

“There could be a whole range of issues involved in this rise.”

Tauri said there has been a significant reduction in the prison muster under the current government.

“But what could be driving the Māori percentage could be a whole range of issues at the moment that could be outside of Corrections' purview. It could be a policing strategy or the court’s backlog because of the Covid-19 lockdowns.”

Wider social issue

Tauri said the underperformance of Māori imprisonment initiatives in the prison system was not a surprise and it would take more than just a reform of the criminal justice system.

“This attends to the complex nature of the social drivers of offending by any group and particularly Māori, so no, we can’t put the blame solely on Corrections.”

Tauri said the issue with the strategy that was co-produced by Māori and the government is that “like all government strategies in the justice sector tends to over-promise and under-deliver by their very nature”.

Tauri said the strategy has only been running for three years and some components of the strategy haven’t even been implemented yet.

“I wouldn’t expect to see any significant or minimal impact of that strategy of Māori rates of imprisonment for at least eight to 10 years, so it's early to put the blame on Corrections.”

Corrections Department deputy chief executive for Māori Topia Rameka also told Te Ao Tapatahi that the Māori numbers in jails were not just a role for Corrections but for its partners in the social sector and wider community.

Rameka (Ngāti Tuwharetoa) said that since having hit the highest number in jail in 2018, the number of Māori incarcerated had reduced by 1184 and the number of Māori serving prison sentences had hit its lowest point in the past 17 years.

But he warned: "It will take time to make a change to a century-old system, which has delivered inequitable outcomes for Māori.”

“Hōkai Rangi has given encouragement to our frontline staff to do things in a different way but it has allowed us to partner with iwi Māori in more meaningful and purposeful ways to realise the outcomes that we all seek.”

Rameka said the focus on imprisoned wāhine Māori is of major importance for the department as the number was higher than the number of tāne. Corrections had launched a wāhine-focused initiative called Wāhine - E rere ana ki te pae hou (Women rising above a new horizon) to try to produce better outcomes for wāhine in prison.

Fewer wāhine

“We are encouraged to hear of small wins for the overall women’s population, including Māori, meaning that the number of Māori women in custody has been significantly reduced in the last 12 months by fourteen percent.”

Rameka said that the department is “laser-focused” on the goals of contributing to public safety, the reduction of reoffending and contributing to the overall representation of Māori in the Corrections system.

“I’m really encouraged by the support that we have from iwi Māori across the motu in relation to this kaupapa."