Māori over-represented in prisons due to colonisation - report

A new report reveals most Māori believe their over-representation in our prisons is a direct result of colonisation and racism - and experts agree.

More than 900 Māori people participated in a 28-question online survey as part of research conducted by ActionStation and the University of Otago.

Those results were combined with interviews with seven experts and data from previous studies. Supervisors also attended the Safe and Effective Justice Summit in August to gather data for the report.

The results are a damning indictment of the prison system and its impact on Māori.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (90 percent) believed structural racism is to blame for disproportionate Māori prison representation, rather than individual blame.

That belief was supported by justice experts, who pointed to Pākehā settlers imposing British justice systems onto Māori as the inciting incident for New Zealand's racial inequity.

Analysis from fourth-year medical student at Otago University further illustrated the link between the colonisation of New Zealand and our modern justice system.

"The forceful taking of Māori land resulted in Māori having less resources and wealth than Pākehā, and this unfair economic reality pushes more Māori toward acts of survival that get punished by the justice system," the report reads.

"There were no prisons before colonisation, and prison structures do not fit with Te Ao Māori [the Māori world]. Rehabilitation of those who have harmed does not and cannot occur through imprisonment."

The report mentions that the pre-colonial Māori justice system was governed by tikanga, which would restore the balance between tapu (restricted) and noa (unrestricted) by using utu (recompense) and muru (ritualised recompense).

"Tikanga custom law recognises that the rights of individuals are indivisible from the wellbeing of their whānau, hapū, and iwi," the report says.

It proposes that installing Māori-led community initiatives and incorporating Māori culture into policy will redress the racial imbalance in our contemporary justice system.

"No policy should be decided by elected representatives without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy," the report says.

"Therefore, as the people who judges and courts lock up the most, Māori voices and views should take prominence in the justice debate."

When asked why people commit crimes, survey participants said poverty and survival tactics were the most common reasons.

Eighty percent identified connected communities as the best way to reduce crime, 76 percent said mental health services and 71 percent said jobs and higher wages would help to bring offending down.

Eighty percent of participants believed prisoners should have the right to vote.

When asked about the expansion of Waikeria Prison, 65 percent disagreed with the Government's plan. While that same percentage agreed with the plan to build a 100-bed mental health facility at the prison, 63 percent said prison wasn't a good place to provide mental health services.

In terms of media representation, 89 percent of participants said the mainstream media does not fairly and accurately report on justice issues affecting Māori.