1.1 Purpose and structure of this report

This report examines the over-representation of Māori in various points of the criminal justice system in order to answer the question of why the numbers of Māori are so high.

The purpose of asking the question is to provide a basis upon which options to address the problem can best be formulated. However the report itself does not attempt to raise or examine possible options other than to illustrate the potential significance of various approaches. Neither does this report set out to be a comprehensive examination of the complex issues surrounding the question. There are many critical conceptual issues surrounding the cultural and political nature of crime which have not been comprehensively addressed, but which will be relevant to the interpretation of material presented here. It is focused on available empirical work, which is likely to be of more immediate use in policy development.

The report approaches the issue by exploring in some detail two possible causal processes, which are expressed in the following explanatory approaches:

  1. Justice system bias and amplification: that systemic factors operate at one or more steps of the criminal justice process which make it more likely for Māori to be apprehended, arrested, charged, convicted or imprisoned, with the result that Māori “accumulate” in the system in greater numbers. The amplification explanation posits that, whatever the real rate of criminal behaviour, any crime committed (or indeed suspected) is subject to systemic processes that make it more likely that Māori will be apprehended, and then dealt with more severely. These processes have variously been described as “unintended consequences of discretion”, “unevenness of decision-making”, “bias” and “institutional racism”. This possibility is explored through an examination of relevant justice sector data and related information, which are examined with reference to potential explanations for observed disparities (the absence of which might suggest - though not confirm - the operation of bias).
  2. Early life environmental influence: that Māori over-representation in criminal justice statistics is a consequence of high numbers of Māori proceeding along a pathway that commences with adverse early-life disadvantage, and results in involvement, during adolescence or adulthood, in criminal activity. The approach taken in exploring this explanation may be explained simply as follows: it is well-known that children who experience developmental circumstances of certain types during childhood, and/or who display certain behavioural characteristics, are at higher risk of engaging subsequently in criminal conduct during late adolescence and adulthood. If over-representation of Māori children in these at-risk sub-groups is similar in scale to that which is found in current criminal justice statistics, then it might reasonably be inferred that the latter phenomenon is a consequence of the former.

The possibility that these two processes in fact operate in tandem, in a mutually reinforcing manner, is also considered. Insofar as the evidence for either perspective justifies it, the report attempts to determine the relative contribution of each. This report has been structured in two strands in order to disaggregate a range of influences in a way that highlights particular issues which might need to be addressed by the government agencies accountable for the criminal justice sector.