Māori are disproportionately represented in criminal justice statistics to an alarming degree. This paper attempts to shed light on why this is so. It examines the issue by considering the evidence for two different (though not mutually exclusive) explanatory approaches:
- that bias operates within the criminal justice system, such that any suspected or actual offending by Māori has harsher consequences for those Māori, resulting in an accumulation of individuals within the system; and
- that a range of adverse early-life social and environmental factors result in Māori being at greater risk of ending up in patterns of adult criminal conduct.
These approaches are examined in the light of criminal justice data and research findings. Key conclusions with respect to the first approach can be summarised as follows:
- Disproportionality shows up strongly in Police apprehension figures, and a number of studies indicate that ethnicity in and of itself could have an influence in this area;
- Similar levels of disproportionality are recorded in prosecutions, convictions, sentencing and reconviction figures, but most of the disproportionality relates to known risk factors rather than ethnicity.
With respect to the second approach, a range of developmental and early-age risk factors are discussed, each of which is known to be associated with a developmental pathway that increases the risk of (among other things) criminal involvement. These factors include:
- family structure, context, and processes (being born to young mothers, a lack of family stability, a family environment in which conflict and violence is common, and being exposed to harsh punishment);
- individual characteristics and experiences of the developing child and adolescent (factors affecting the child’s neurological development, and psychological temperament);
- educational participation, engagement and achievement (school absence, early leaving age and failure to achieve qualifications);
- the emergence of developmental disorders (childhood conduct disorder, early onset of antisocial behaviour, and use/abuse of alcohol and other substances).
Evidence for the extent to which Māori young people were disproportionately represented in these sub-groups was then reviewed. The conclusion of this part of the report was that, as a consequence of being exposed to a range of risk factors in social, economic and family circumstances, the over-representation of Māori in criminal justice statistics reasonably accurately mirrors the extent of criminal involvement amongst Māori, particularly younger Māori males. Those life circumstances most often associated with offending are, for a range of reasons, more likely to affect Māori families.
As noted, the two perspectives are by no means mutually exclusive, and both approaches appear to offer part of the explanation for the current state of affairs. The evidence points to an interaction between the two processes, where the operation of one set makes the other more likely. For example, early environmental influences may predispose individuals towards certain types of illegal or anti-social behaviour, which in turn raises the risk of Police involvement. Additionally, the risk of apprehension is “amplified” because of formal and informal “profiling” by official agencies, as well as society generally.
There are indications of a degree of over-representation related solely to ethnicity, rather than any other expected factor, at key points in the criminal justice system. Although mostly small at each point, the cumulative effect is likely to be sufficient to justify closer examination and investigation of options to reduce disproportionate representation of Māori. Nevertheless, the primary domain for government intervention to address disproportionality is argued to reside in the areas of health, social support and education, in order to reduce disadvantage and the problems it confers. Criminal justice sector agencies could contribute to improving outcomes through early intervention strategies.