Relative to their numbers in the general population, Māori are over-represented at every stage of the criminal justice process. Though forming just 12.5% of the general population aged 15 and over 1, 42% of all criminal apprehensions involve a person identifying as Māori, as do 50% of all persons in prison. For Māori women, the picture is even more acute: they comprise around 60% of the female prison population.
The true scale of Māori over-representation is greater than a superficial reading of such figures tends to convey. For example, with respect to the prison population, the rate of imprisonment for this country’s non-Māori population is around 100 per 100,000. If that rate applied to Māori also, the number of Māori in prison at any one time would be no more than 650. There are however currently 4000 Māori in prison - six times the number one might otherwise expect 2.
Further, a recent extraction of court criminal history data indicated that over 16,000 Māori males currently between the ages of 20 and 29 years have a record of serving one or more sentences administered by the Department of Corrections 3. This equates to more than 30% of all Māori males in that age band; the corresponding figure for non-Māori appears to be around 10%. At any given point in time throughout the last decade, fully 3% of all Māori males between the ages of 20 and 29 years were in prison, either on remand or as sentenced prisoners; again, the corresponding figure for non-Māori is less than one sixth of that.
Over-representation in offender statistics is mirrored also by over-representation of Māori as victims of crime, a result of the fact that much crime occurs within families, social networks or immediate neighbourhoods.
This state of affairs represents a catastrophe both for Māori as a people and, given the position of Māori as tangata whenua, for New Zealand as a whole. Far too many Māori, during what might otherwise be the most productive years of their lives (and, in terms of raising the next generation, some of the most critically important), end up enmeshed in the harsh, conflict-ridden and potentially alienating sphere of the criminal justice process.
The effects on racial harmony are also pernicious. The figures lend themselves to extremist interpretations: at one end, some accuse the criminal justice system of being brutally racist, as either intentionally or unintentionally destructive to the interests and well-being of Māori as a people. At the other, there are those who dismiss the entire Māori race as constitutionally “criminally inclined”.
1 Statistics New Zealand, 2004; 2006 Census data indicate that Māori of all ages form 14.6% of the general population.
2 Even moderate success in addressing the issue of Māori over-representation could therefore reduce the size of the prison estate by over 30%, or 2000+ beds.
3 This includes imprisonment or community sentences such as Supervision and Community Work.