Māori youth key to ending high Māori prison population rates

By Tumamao Harawira

Māori are disproportionately represented in criminal justice statistics to an alarming degree. Despite Māori only making up 15% of the population, it accounts for a staggering 52.7% of the prison population. 

But there is hope for the younger generation, according to Justice Sir Joe Williams.

In a conversation with Moana Maniapoto on Māori Television's current affairs show Te Ao with Moana, Justice Sir Joe says, "If you look at those who are born after 1990, the incarceration rate for that group just falls off a cliff, and no one seems to know that."

And Williams can point to one big reason for the drop. "I'm telling you, that's kohanga, that's kura, wānanga, that's mana Māori, that's maranga."

And Te Ara Poutama data backs up what he is saying, to a certain degree.

According to statistics from Corrections, of the almost n9000  male prisoners imprisoned, only 28% are under the age of 30. Justice Sir Joe says it points to a high number of reoffending by the older generation.

"And what's driving primarily, it seems to me, the high level of incarceration, is our generation getting reimprisoned. Because their children are not, they're being diverted."

The statistics show the total number of youth arrests has fallen. However, Māori under 18-year-olds now make up a larger proportion of those taken into police custody.

In 2018, of the more than 11,000 young people arrested, more than 66% were Māori. In 2011 it was just under 40%.

National's Corrections spokesperson Simeon Brown says, "From the National Party's perspective, we want to see a reduction in the crime rate, we want to see fewer victims and we want victims at the heart of our justice system. Everyone wants to have fewer people in prison but the reason is that there are fewer people committing crimes and fewer victims of crime. That should be the sole focus of the government."

Topia Rameka, deputy chief executive of Te Ara Poutama says, “the primary goals of corrections are to ensure public safety, reduce reoffending and address the disproportionate rate of Māori in the correctional system. The statistics show that the number of Māori in prison under the age of 25 has decreased significantly from 1,386 in 2012 to 718 in 2021 – that is a 48% drop over five years.”

According to Justice Sir Joe, iwi must have a role to play in the rehabilitation of its people, "so if they don't, then they have ceded that ground, to the Crown. If they are not the solution, someone else is going to be."