Every second person serving a prison sentence in New Zealand is Maori. About 50 per cent of the people in jail come from 14 per cent of the population. That stark statistic is not news; it has been so for as long as New Zealanders can remember, though we have been reluctant to recognise the reason.
The explanation cannot be simply social disadvantage. Maori are not the only ethnic minority in this country which suffers disproportionate poverty and discrimination in employment, housing, business and other opportunities. And they are not the only conspicuous minority which catches the attention of police or gives an adverse impression in court. But members of other minorities do not commit crime in comparable proportions. What is the matter with Maori?
Only non-Maori ask that question. Maori know that what sets them apart in so many social statistics has something to do with the predicament that distinguishes them from all other minorities in this country: they are "indigenous" in the sense that their migration happened so long ago that they can identify with nowhere else in the world. Unlike Samoans, Chinese and others, there is nowhere Maori are a majority, their culture dominant and their nationality expressed in a sovereign state.
Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples has often pointed out that the Maori rate of imprisonment, while five times worse than that of any other section of New Zealand society, is similar to that of indigenous minorities in other countries. He has no doubt that the cause lies in cultural alienation and he believes the solution lies in a different form of criminal custody.
As Minister of Maori Affairs he has convinced the National-led Government to consider setting up a small, secure institution where some Maori offenders might be "healed", to use his word. Corrections Minister Judith Collins is "very keen" on the idea if it proves to reduce reoffending.
As Dr Sharples envisages it, a 60-bed unit would be established in an urban centre close to educational services and jobs. The inmates would earn places by learning to speak Maori and prove their good intentions by becoming literate and working for charitable or community projects.
Though locked in at night they would be more like flatmates than inmates, sharing facilities, learning to live together, associating with their families, the community and their victims. All going well they could be released after four months.
It sounds more like a pre-release hostel than a prison and the cultural element might be no more intensive than the Maori focus units already operating inside five prisons. They were set up with Dr Sharples' help 11 years ago and their inmates have recorded a reoffending rate about 7 per cent lower than the general prison rate. Since the units probably attract the better-motivated inmates, the improvement does not seem startling.
A stand-alone unit may be a long way from adoption and National may remain sceptical of its worth. But it owes the Maori Party a concession, especially after ruling out Maori electorates for Auckland's proposed Super City.
The criminal rehabilitation unit sounds better than building another prison and probably cheaper. As Dr Sharples has said, at $80,000 a year to accommodate someone in prison it would be cheaper to put them in a hotel. The unit will sound too much like a motel for many. But it would be run by a Maori committee involving local iwi or hapu. It is the sort of initiative that can enhance the autonomy and mana of many besides the inmates concerned.
No doubt Maori would prefer many areas of public administration before prison administration but there are none in which the Maori statistics are worse. It is a proposal that deserves a trial.