New Zealand's prison policies under fire in new Amnesty report

New Zealand's human rights record has come under scrutiny in a new report from Amnesty International.

While coming off well compared to most other countries in Asia-Pacific region, New Zealand still has a lot to work on, the group says.

"It provides a bit of a snapshot of how we're doing and how we did in 2019," spokesperson Annaliese Johnston told Newshub. "We had a bit of a mixed record."

Reaction to the March terror attack in Christchurch features heavily. The Government's crackdown on firearms is noted, but not criticised as a human rights issue. Instead, Amnesty notes the Government's Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Bill "enabled the High Court to restrict an individual's human rights on a lower burden of proof, in a high degree of intrusion normally only imposed following a criminal conviction".

Johnston said the legislation was "really rushed through", with only three days of public consultation. National was the only party to vote against it (with independent MP Jami-Lee Ross), but not because they thought it went too far - the opposite, in fact, leader Simon Bridges saying it only left Kiwis "half-safe"

But the bulk of Amnesty's report on New Zealand focuses on prisons. 

Firstly, that Māori in 2019 "comprised around 16 percent of the population but made up 38 percent of people prosecuted by police, 42 percent of adults convicted, and 57 percent of adults sentenced to prison."

"There are obviously still significant issues relating to ongoing colonisation and racism affecting Māori in the criminal justice system," said Johnston, criticising the pace of change. 

In June the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group released an interim report calling the proportion of Māori behind bars a "crisis" that could take "a generation or more" to fix. 

"[We should be] making sure that we're addressing those entrenched issues of structural racism against Māori, and removing problematic pieces of legislation which enable kids to be placed in police cells," said Johnston. 

Putting children behind bars with adults is the second area in which Amnesty criticises Aotearoa's prison policies. 

"In July, New Zealand raised the age to 18 for individuals tried in the adult criminal justice system in order to include 17-year-olds in its alternative youth justice system," the report notes.

"However, the country retained its reservation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding mixing juveniles with adults in places of detention. People under the age of 18 could be held on remand in police cells, with some being held in police custody for several nights. There were a number of reports of children engaging in self-harm while in such custody."

And thirdly, Amnesty slams New Zealand's detention of asylum seekers in places like Mt Eden Prison.

"As of March, there were eight asylum seekers held in a correctional facility alongside criminal remand prisoners," the report says.

New Zealand's refugee quota is expected to increase from 1000 to 1500 this year, but Amnesty says that still leaves us behind Australia, per capita, despite Australia's less-than-stellar record on its treatment of asylum seekers - also noted in Amnesty's report.

"Per capita, Australia's actually accepting more than double what New Zealand is," said Johnston. "Even with the increase to the refugee quota this year, there's still a huge amount we could be doing." 

New Zealand's poor record on child poverty was also criticised in the report, as was the growing number of kids in state care.

"A lot of New Zealanders are very conscious of the things they'd like to see changed - it's actually just about you know, politicians having the political will to make the changes," said Johnston.

The report follows New Zealand being ranked the freest country in the world by the Cato Institute, and the least corrupt by Transparency International

"We do some stuff really well - we've got a strong democracy - but we shouldn't be ignoring the things we're not doing well," said Johnston.

The full report, which includes damning reports of the state of human rights in places like North Korea, was released on Thursday and can be read online