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1.2 Previous work on over-representation

The attempt to understand Māori over-representation in criminal justice statistics has a substantial history. A great deal of work on this topic has been undertaken in New Zealand, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. These attempts have resulted in a range of hypotheses being explored and put forward as explaining disparities in apprehensions or convictions.

Based on a thesis analysing records of arrests and charges amongst Māori and Pacific people in Auckland in 1966, Duncan (1971) 1 concluded that higher rates of offending resulted from effect of migration (Māori from rural areas to urban, Pacific from their home island nations to New Zealand). His expectation was that that the differences would disappear in the next generation as “assimilation” occurred, a view which now seems sadly optimistic. In 1972, his chapter in “Racial Issues in New Zealand” sets out a comprehensive picture of the mechanisms by which racial differences in criminal behaviour might occur, in ways that seem more relevant to contemporary New Zealand. He offers clear arguments for the effect of biased criminal justice processes, and outlines social mechanisms which would reinforce and increase these effects.

“A continuing cycle of negative evaluation of a minority, that minority’s reaction to such an evaluation, and the subsequent reinforcement of that evaluation, all combine to make a Police ideal of impartiality almost impossible to maintain … it is a small wonder that a disproportionate number of Polynesians appear in the courts and penal institutions.” 2

Work by O’Malley presented a conceptual approach informed by his small but thorough examination of Magistrates’ Court data; this showed higher conviction rates for Māori compared to “Europeans”. His 1973 paper discussed a number of contextual factors (culture conflict, recent urbanization, low socio-economic status, high-risk mores, selective processing by control agencies) which he argued culminate in high[er] crime rates 3. He noted that Māori were disadvantaged in comparison to Europeans in court experiences - almost half as likely to have legal representation, possibly more likely to “appear” guilty (through a demeanour of fear and uncertainty that was liable to be interpreted as guilt by Pakeha), and less likely to appeal a guilty verdict. Delinquent behaviour was likely amongst young people recently arrived in the city and less subject to parental control and community sanctions on delinquent behaviour. Many of these factors still seem plausible.

Several of the research papers from the Joint Committee on Young Offenders (JCYO) address ethnicity 4. Report 2, from 1975, was based on a cohort of males born in 1957, examining the extent to which high rates of delinquency and offending amongst Māori could be explained by reference to socio-economic status. It concluded that high rates of offending amongst Māori were only partially explained by SES - accounting for 16 - 33% of the variance, and suggested that cultural values towards property, and the effects of urban dislocation, may be important factors

A later report from the JCYO (1980) 5, based on empirical analysis of court data, showed a dramatic increase in Māori youth offending relative to non-Māori from the late 1960s to early 1970s. It is almost entirely focused on socio-economic explanations, with any distortions from ‘bias’ thought to be minimal, despite evidence that Māori were shown to be more likely to be reported, apprehended, sent to court, and convicted.

Moana Jackson’s influential 1988 paper 6 articulated a Māori research perspective which critiqued earlier work, particularly orthodox western empirical research based on scientific/quantitative methods requiring data based on individuals, and isolating factors in order to assess relative effects. This paper was something of a watershed: Jackson argued, on the basis of a Māori worldview, for greater recognition of the impacts of historical and cultural factors in Māori offending. He also noted that, within Māoridom, a communal rather than individualistic approach prevailed, and concluded that a parallel system was necessary to ensure justice for Māori.

The potentially anti-empirical approach represented by Jackson illustrates what has become somewhat of a chasm, between advocates and researchers with a political or policy agenda, and researchers who endeavour to gather and analyse data, at times with insufficient regard to social or political context. Tensions also arise from methodological differences between research focused on individuals, and approaches which try to take into account collective and structural dimensions.

There is however a good deal of statistically-based data now available which demonstrates correlations between ethnicity and outcomes. There is also much writing based on conceptual and socio-political perspectives (including of the effects of history and contemporary institutions), but there is very little synthesis between these approaches.


1 Duncan, L. S. W. (1971) Explanations for Polynesian Crime Rates in Auckland. Recent Law, October 1971, pp. 283-288.

2 Duncan, L. S. W. (1972) Racial Considerations in Polynesian Crime. In: Vaughan, G. (ed.) (1972) Racial Issues in New Zealand. Auckland: Akarana Press. Quotation from pp. 39 – 40.

3 O'Malley, P. (1973b) The Influence of Cultural Factors on Maori Crime Rates. In: Webb, S. D. & Collette, J. (eds.) (1973) New Zealand Society - Contemporary Perspectives. Sydney: John Wiley & Sons Australasia Pty Ltd.

4 Fergusson, D. M., Donnell, A. & Slater, S. W. (1975) The Effects of Race and Socio-Economic Status on Juvenile Offending Statistics. Joint Committee on Young Offenders, Research Report No. 2. Wellington, NZ.

5 Fifield, J. & Donnell, A. (1980) Socio-Economic Status, Race, and Offending in New Zealand. An Examination of Trends in Officially Collected Statistics for the Maori and Non-Maori Populations. Joint Committee on Young Offenders, Research Report No. 6. Wellington, NZ.

6 Jackson, M. (1988) The Maori and the Criminal Justice System: He Whaipaanga Hou - A New Perspective, Part 2. Wellington: Department of Justice.

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