Jarrod Gilbert: Be careful ascribing racism to the fact fewer Maori are let off with a warning

Maori are 15 per cent of the population but 50 per cent of the prison population. Photo / Michael Craig
Maori are 15 per cent of the population but 50 per cent of the prison population. Photo / Michael Craig

• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.

The disproportionate amount of Maori in our criminal justice system is among the most serious problems facing New Zealand. In my April column I unpacked Maori imprisonment rates and if you read that and weren't concerned by it then I dare say your moral compass requires recalibration.

In recent times, however, a number of journalists and commentators have placed heavy emphasis on racism being the root cause of the problem, but on this point I think we need to be much more cautious than most have.

A report by the Independent Police Complaints Authority (IPCA) released two weeks ago was held up as evidence for racism.

The report looked at pre-charge warnings used by police.

Pre-charge warnings are employed when a person has been arrested for a minor offence that requires police intervention but a "public interest" test indicates prosecution is not warranted. It is intended to give some account for the offence by recording the warning as part of a criminal history but it keeps people away from the justice system.

Apart from saving taxpayers a truckload of money, the thinking behind such warnings is that for many people the shock of contact with the police and a formal caution will act as a wake-up that modifies future behaviour.

The IPCA report found that Maori are significantly less likely to get pre charge warnings than non-Maori.

The headlines from that point wrote themselves. It was concluded, quite naturally perhaps, that racism was at play.

But the headline figures didn't tell the whole story. Far from it, in fact. The IPCA drew on an audit of those given pre charge warnings and that found 51 per cent of non-Maori had no previous convictions but only 26 per cent of Maori enjoyed a clean record. Among a number of disqualifying factors for pre-charge warnings, a person's form is certainly considered. This was near universally ignored in reporting and commentary around the report, even though the IPCA stated: "The Authority has not come across any evidence that clearly demonstrates differential treatment on the basis of ethnicity."

I have found not a single reference to that in the media.

If we were just to stick fast on race, then the fact that Maori are 15 per cent of the population but 50 per cent of the prison population and Asian peoples are 10 per cent but on 3.5 per cent of the prison muster, then Asians in New Zealand face reverse racism. Actually that data alone tells us next to nothing.

I've done a lot of work with criminals and inside prisons, and while Maori are overrepresented, the commonality that is most obvious between Maori and non-Maori offenders is deprivation and disadvantage - the foibles of those terrible pockets of lower socio-economic communities.

And here we unquestionably stand on foundations altogether more solid.

The Ministry of Health found that one in four prisoners reports a mental illness or psychological condition that makes everyday activities or socialising difficult, and one in five has difficulty learning, which is unsurprising given the Department of Corrections has found that 71 per cent of prisoners have difficulty reading and writing.

This data, of course, point to the drivers of crime.

Maori are over represented in communities in which such problems have fertile ground. The unemployment rate for Maori is double that of non-Maori, Maori have the highest rates of binge drinking and smoking and their morbidity data are across the board depressing. Maori die younger and suicide more often. Maori dominate gang numbers and they are also more likely to be the victims of crime. Tackling criminal justice bias, whatever that might be, will not solve these problems.

Many on the left will bristle at any suggestion that racism might be less of a factor than currently popular. They somehow have forgotten that class was once their primary concern. And in many ways, that's what I'm leaning on - socio-economics - but it's more than that. I'm really only saying that we need research to understand the influence of race because currently we can't prove it, despite what many media say. But more than that I am saying that if we were to rid ourselves of racial bias tomorrow - to whatever extent it exists - the problems for Maori would remain for large part intact. Yet they mustn't be allowed to stand; these things need to change.

There are big problems for Maori in the criminal justice realm but to lose sight of the drivers of crime is to lose sight of things of great importance. Things that aren't easy headlines. Things that exist within the hearts of certain communities but ought be the concerns of us all.

- NZ Herald

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