People in jail because they're homeless - Julia Whaipooti

By Bronson Perich

Lawyer Julia Whaipooti says New Zealand bail laws are keeping thousands of unconvicted Kiwis behind bars.

“The intention was that the Bail Amendment Act would make it harder for those who are charged with more violent crimes to get bail,” Whaipooti says.

She says that, at the time it passed seven years ago, it was expected the law would take another 60 people off the streets.

But the number of Kiwis on remand has gone from 1500 to almost 4000 in seven years.

Jailed because of homelessness

Whaipooti says people are being held on remand for a variety of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the charges they face.

“Effectively, you can be in there because you don’t have appropriate housing to go to,” Whaipooti says.

“We know there’s a housing crisis here that really impacts Māori.”

Covid-19 slowed down the rate at which court cases were heard. Whaipooti says inmates are now waiting six to 12 months to go to court. This means people are effectively serving their time before they are convicted.

"When they are eventually sentenced, many are released straight away.

"Many of them would have sentenced to a non-imprisonable charge, a non-imprisonable sentence."

The means minor offenders live and associate with hardened violent criminals. Their chances of repeat offending increase upon release.

Prison: 'a university of crime'

“I often call prisons ‘a university of crime’, where they learn things that they otherwise wouldn’t," Whaipooti says.

When the 2013 Bail Amendment was passed, 600 wāhine Māori were in remand. Now the number of wāhine Māori on remand has almost doubled.

“We, to our shame, have the highest incarceration of indigenous women in the world,” she says.

“So it's 64% of our women inside, and many of them disproportionately on remand.”

For Whaipooti and others in the justice area, immediate action is needed. They say that, while politicians have given lip service, there is a lack of political will to make lasting change. Whaipooti quoted the cost of imprisonment at $120,000 per person a year.

The Ministry of Justice has been asked for comment.