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Mike Butler

Govt to blame for Maori reoffending?

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The government is to blame for the high numbers of Maori in jail, according to a Treaty of Waitangi claim filed by retired probation officer Tom Hemopo.

An urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing was held in Wellington through the last week of July, to investigate Hemopo’s claim, specifically, that the Crown failed, including through its Department of Corrections, to reduce the number of Maori who reoffend as a part of reducing the disproportionate number of Maori serving sentences.

Maori make up 55 per cent of the male prisoner population and 63 per cent for women, according to 2014 statistics cited by Hemopo in his affidavit.  Maori represented 53.9 percent of all 2014 convictions. There are close to 10,000 people in New Zealand prisons.

Around 77 percent of Maori offenders were reconvicted within five years of release with 58 percent returning to prison.

At first sight, any reasonable person would dismiss the claim because:

  1. Prisons are populated by people convicted for offending.
  2. A person with a tiny percentage of Maori ancestry should not be identified as exclusively Maori. If a Maori was defined as a person with at least 50 percent Maori ancestry, the Maori prison population would shrink dramatically and instantly.
  3. Offenders are or should be responsible for their offending.

Having said that, a closer look at the claim shows that:

  1. Tom Hemopo and his supporters have provided little useful information other than a claim that rehabilitation is not working and the government is to blame.
  2. A strategy of reducing Maori offending by immersing Maori inmates in their Maoriness has not been successful.
  3. The affidavits and accompanying exhibits provide a valuable resource on the current array of Corrections programmes to reduce recidivism.

This is Hemopo’s second tribunal foray on behalf of Maori recidivists. In response to his Wai 1024 claim, the tribunal found in 2005 treaty breaches involving a failure by the Crown to consult on the Conviction/Risk of Imprisonment assessment and on the Criminogenic Needs Inventory list of five Maori Cultural Related Needs.

Hemopo’s current Wai 2540 claim is somewhat of an internal Corrections row in which a Maori probation officer has gone to the Waitangi Tribunal to get it to wave the big stick to get the Corrections hierarchy to do better.

What Hemopo wants to see, according to his affidavit, is for Corrections and the Crown to make “a commitment to reducing the Maori reoffending rate as part of reducing the disproportionate number of Maori who are serving sentences”.  This would include “targets, goals and strategies for reducing Maori reoffending to which it could be held accountable by the public and by Maori”.

Hemopo’s submission which included 42 exhibits may be viewed at the Waitangi Tribunal website.[1]

However, the Crown said there were “dozens and dozens” of programmes which supported Maori reintegration, including initiatives set up in partnership with iwi. Crown lawyer Aaron Perkins said a Maori Services Team had been set up within Corrections in 2012 and reported straight to the chief executive.

The Corrections Department’s deputy chief executive of corporate services, Vincent Patrick Arbuckle, listed 29 Maori-orientated Justice Department programmes. He said the department had been working since 1995 on programmes to reduce Maori offending with largely positive results.[2]

Submissions from Hemopo’s supporters show considerable naivete. For instance, claimant witness Desma Ratima, who represents the Takitimu District Maori Council, wrote:

I consider that the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate. The way I see it, if you are sick and go to hospital, you expect to receive all the treatment you need for your illness. When someone has broken the law, this needs to be addressed and doing so may include time in prison. But I expect when they leave prison, they should have received all the help they need so that they do not break the law again.[3]

Another claimant witness, Maori Law academic Moana Jackson, called for the abolition of prisons in New Zealand and said his Hawke’s Bay tribe, Ngati Kahungunu, would set up their own system to deal with tribal members that commit crime.

It’s now known as de-carceration that you begin to move away from a method of dealing with wrong-doing to a system that looks at restorations and reciprocity and eventually could lead to the abolition of prisons.[4]

It would not be a prison it would be a kaupapa Maori based place in which the reasons for their wrong-doing would be addressed and the whanau helped to recover and so on.

Jackson made no apparent attempt to address two basic problems with this approach. First, victims of violence, sexual assault, and burglary expect perpetrators to be detained so they could expect not to be revictimised in the foreseeable future. Second, who would the non-crim people at “kaupapa Maori” places turn to when a convicted perpetrator starts stealing stuff or attacking auntie?

The arguably barmy idea that change will occur by immersing Maori inmates in Maori culture has been tested over 20 years and the existence of Tom Hemopo’s treaty claim is proof that the strategy has not worked.

Maori Focus units were the “next big thing” in Corrections about 20 years ago but Corrections staff found out that once inmates were moved back into the mainstream part of prisons the Maori Focus benefits quickly faded. It did not take a great deal of thought to imagine what would happen once inmates got their steps to freedom and went back to the drinking, smoking, drug-taking, crime-ridden real world.

The affidavits and accompanying exhibits provide a valuable resource on an array of Corrections programmes to reduce recidivism. A search on the Waitangi Tribunal website for Wai 2540 will turn up all documents.

Criminology research Kim Workman’s affidavit gives the history of Maori offending, citing the 1961 Hunn report that asserted Maori were more likely to be imprisoned. He also cites the claim that Maori have a genetic disposition to violence, and presents the view that the high incarceration of “first peoples” is a “symptom of colonisation”.

Such arguments belong to the “someone else is to blame” school of thought.  Who or what is to blame for the high imprisonment/recidivism rate of so-called Maori, and would tinkering with prison programmes bring any actual change? To address that question, a step back to look at the wider picture may be helpful.

Hemopo thinks “tikanga Maori” is the solution but what does this mean? “Tikanga Maori” refers to customary Maori customs and values, such as drying human heads, feasting on slain enemies, and slavery, all of which are largely no longer in use. Imagined other customs and values apart from those thus discarded must be recreated.

What model should be copied to recreate them? Should we go back to the pre-1840 world before colonisation? The 1800 to 1840 world in New Zealand was the time of the intertribal “musket wars” in which possibly Maori slaughtered 120,000 of their own. Elements of that dog-eat-dog world is evident in gang culture?

Should we go back further, to the pre-contact world of a Stone Age culture eking out an existence eating fern roots, native birds, eels, and freezing through the winters in raupo whares?

“Whanaungatanga” is another concept recurring in affidavits associated with this claim. This refers to “kinship” or “a sense of family connection”. However, how would returning to “a sense of family connection” function in the so-called Maori world in which one in three babies are born into welfare and are mostly raised by a sole parent, the mother.

This is the world of children having children with a series of stepfathers in a world riddled with drunkenness and drug addiction. Any attempts to “cure” the Maori repeat offender problem is going to have to “cure” New Zealand’s mammoth welfare problem.

Having said that, Corrections could do better in the area of probation for all freed prisoners irrespective of race. Too many inmates are sent out into the free world with a reporting date and a requirement to find accommodation by themselves.

The country needs investment in halfway houses and work for freed inmates to reduce the motive and opportunity for repeat offending. That is not a Maori problem. That is a freed-inmate-with-few-skills problem.

Meanwhile, sometimes for some it is just easier to re-offend to return to the relative security of food and shelter inside jail rather than to battle the rejections and temptations of life in the world of freedom.

[1] Tom Hemopo exhibits. https://forms.justice.govt.nz/search/WT/
[2] Maori Advisory Board terms of reference, https://forms.justice.govt.nz/search/Documents/WT/wt_DOC_96980846/Wai%202540%2C%20A010(a).pdf
[3] Summary of evidence of Desma Kemp Ratima, July 18, 2016. https://forms.justice.govt.nz/search/Documents/WT/wt_DOC_109488378/Wai%202540%2C%20A022(a).pdf
[4] Time to abolish prisons, July 26, 2016.