New Zealand's prison muster is closing in on 10,000 inmates, about the population of Greymouth. The number of inmates includes prisoners on remand, but the trend over the last decade has been upwards, despite more convicted offenders sentenced to home detention and monitored with electronic bracelets. The cost of running the jails is $900 million a year, driven in part by reconviction rates which sees hundreds of offenders back behind bars within two years of release.
Nowhere is this reoffending more pronounced than among Maori, who are significantly over-represented in the country's jails as a proportion of the population. As many of four out of 10 Maori released from prison after their sentence are returned to cells within two years. From non-Maori, the figure is around three out of 10.
These figures raise questions about rehabilitation strategies for all prisoners but especially Maori, and whether the Corrections Department is working effectively to reduce the reimprisonment rate of Maori offenders. These are important social issues and they have been under the spotlight at an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing.
The hearing was a response to an application from Tom Hemopo, who alleged failures by the Crown to reduce Maori reoffending rates. He was critical that Corrections' Maori strategic plan had been dropped without any evaluation of its impact, leaving a policy vacuum. In his claim, the former probation officer argued Maori suffered "significant and irreversible prejudice" because the Crown had created a stereotype about Maori criminality. He suggested the incarceration of so many Maori removed them from their whanau, which in turn placed family units under stress and at risk of turning children into offenders.
The Crown opposed the case for an urgent hearing, though it acknowledged "the disproportionate rate of Maori reoffending is an extremely serious issue that causes significant prejudice to Maori but that there are inherent limits to what correctional and other state interventions can reasonably achieve".
It submitted Maori reoffending was a highly complex issue and nothing the tribunal could do would assist the Crown to reduce either the proportion of Maori in prison or reoffending rates.
Judge Patrick Savage, deputy chair of the tribunal, accepted that Maori reoffending numbers, while "stark and cause for considerable concern", were not new. The issue was whether the Crown was doing enough.
But he also addressed the Crown view that there was no "imminent event" to warrant an urgent hearing. If the applicant was right, the judge noted, "then many young Maori men and women are in the Correction system or will enter it tomorrow, next month or next year". For them and their families, there was "imminent and perhaps irreversible prejudice".
The tribunal made the right call in agreeing to an urgent hearing. Its decisions from this important forum could be critical to reversing a trend which, left unchecked, carries clear warning signs for New Zealand.