Opinion: History's role in understanding Māori prison rates

Kiwis must face up to the high incarceration rates of Māori (File)
Kiwis must face up to the high incarceration rates of Māori (File)

Last weekend I published an article entitled 'Why are so many Māori in prison?'

The article took an historical view of Māori poverty using the expertise and knowledge of historian Vincent O'Malley and Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox.

Although we don't allow comments on the Newshub website - particularly for such an emotive and divisive article - I forgot to take into account the flurry of comments that would come through later on the Newshub Facebook page.

It was obvious some posters had simply read the headline and hadn't bothered to read the article, but many had, and some of the comments were very interesting.

One main theme that came through was one of historical ignorance:

Why indeed?

Intergenerational poverty and welfare dependence has had a direct effect on Māori crime rates. This is fact. You cannot deny it.

It's a sensitive subject but one I tried to examine using history to understand today's endemic Māori poverty rates.

Kiwi historian Vincent O'Malley told me the invasion of the Waikato during the New Zealand Wars (Land Wars) displaced thousands of Māori and made a once vibrant and wealthy people destitute overnight.

I have this question for the posters:

The ownership of land has, and will always be, the key factor in understanding the New Zealand economy.

If you own some land, and indeed the house that sits on top of it, then you're doing alright, whether it's 2016 or 1863.

If you don't own any land, which is the case for most Māori, then you're at the bottom of the pile.

In a perfect New Zealand, Māori wouldn't be on the wrong end of crime, poverty, and poor health statistics. The sad fact is that they are, and shockingly so.

Remember that Māori make up 14.6 percent of New Zealand's population, but over 50 percent of the prison population.

All Kiwis need to be concerned about that statistic; it's blight on our country and the end product of a social situation that simply isn't working for Māori.

So what can be done about it?

This was a question I proposed at the end of the article, and Marama Fox gave her response. She told me the current justice system isn't working for Māori and it needs change and reform.

But therein lies the greatest of debates:

A common theme posted was this: "We're all Kiwis and we should all be treated the same, regardless of race."

If you look closely at the New Zealand justice system you'll soon realise Māori aren't treated the same as everyone else.

As Ms Fox told me: "Māori are three times as likely to be incarcerated for the same crime as non-Māori, and you're three times as likely to be incarcerated for longer periods for the same crime as non-Māori."

Does this read as being treated the 'same' to you?

Newshub will be looking further into the high incarceration rates of Māori because it's a major issue and one that's often misunderstood within New Zealand society.

I believe we first have to first address it, and then seriously look at ways of improving it.

If we can't at least do that, then what kind of society are we?