Jacinda Ardern's Māori prison population target 'ballsy' - Chester Borrows

Jacinda Ardern's plan to turn around disproportionate numbers of Māori in prison won't be popular with everyone, the former Courts Minister says.

"It's pretty ballsy," Chester Borrows told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"I think it's a big target."

The Prime Minister used her Waitangi speech to highlight the massive gap.

Māori make up only 14.6 percent of New Zealand's population, but a staggering 51 percent of its prison population.

"It's the incarceration of the Māori people disproportionately to everyone else," she told the crowd.

"That is the distance between us. And so long as that exists, we have failed in our partnership."

Mr Borrows says Ms Ardern will have to make "big calls" to fix it.

"They [the policies] won't all be popular with the public.

"If she's got the courage to do that, good on her."

The crux of the disproportion is "institutional", he says, "and a lot of it is unthinking". But Mr Borrows is hesitant to call it a racist issue.

"But at the same time it's there and you've got to call it by what it is.

"There's a real difficulty in pointing the finger... you've got to ask why.

"We've got the lowest crime rate we've had in about 30 years, the lowest number of people appearing before our court in 30 years and yet we've got the highest prison population we've had in forever.

Mr Borrows says other factors which have a higher impact on Māori, such as mental health and substance abuse, need to be investigated.

"If you do nothing about it, nothing targeted toward Māori, is that racist? Seems pretty racist to me.

"Turning a blind eye - is that racism or ignorance? I think it's a little bit of both."

Labour announced in 2017 plans for a separate Māori prison.

"A prison based on Māori values, not exclusively for Māori but for anybody, but they'll know that the values that the prison will be run under will be based along Māori lines," Labour's Corrections spokesperson Kelvin Davis told Newshub in May last year.

Mr Davis wanted to convert Northland's Ngawha prison into the Māori prison, saying it would be an "excellent place".

And while it would be a Māori prison, other ethnicities would be allowed.

"Even if there are some people that are just going to pooh-pooh it, well, to hell with them," Mr Davis said.