The ethnic makeup of New Zealand's new intakes of prisoners has set new records.

Maori now make up a higher proportion of all new prisoners than at any time in recorded history.

Ministry of Justice figures released last week showed 56.3 per cent of people imprisoned last year were Maori - the highest proportion since records were available from 1980.

The proportion of Europeans imprisoned dropped to its own record - falling below 30 per cent of the total for the first time.

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In the past decade, the number of people convicted has dropped significantly. At its peak in 2009, about 100,000 people were sentenced. Last year, that figure had fallen to fewer than 65,000 - a 35 per cent drop.

However, the number of people imprisoned has not reflected the decrease in convictions.

Compared to 2009, there was just a 9 per cent fall in the number of people sent to jail.

Proportionally, those convicted in 2016 were 40 per cent more likely to end up in prison than those convicted in 2009.

Auckland University of Technology law lecturer Khylee Quince said New Zealand courts were "incredibly punitive".

She said there was "no doubt" New Zealand needed to reduce the number of people being put behind bars.

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"We are incredibly harsh on people," Quince said.

"About half of people in prison in New Zealand are there for property and drug offending. Very few Western nations send people to prison for those types of offences.

"It's outrageous."

There's no such thing as a bad baby. They're not born like that. We've got to get to the cause of the problem.

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Quince said she was not surprised at the rates of Maori imprisonment. She attributed the higher imprisonment rate to a number of factors.

"The number one thing the judge is looking for [when sentencing] is prior offending and risk of future offending," Quince said.

"Maori offenders often receive harsher outcomes because of [previous convictions] even when faced with the same conviction as a non-Maori offender.

"Having said that, I still think there would be an element of systemic bias."

She said the Ministry of Justice must increase the diversity of ethnicities and backgrounds of presiding judges.

"Judges are just human beings, but if they are human beings from a particularly narrow slice of our society, then they will also reflect the values, aspirations and biases of members of those groups in society.

"You even want the ones that aren't diverse to be better educated on matters to be able to understand, for example, marginalisation, poverty, violence, and Maori, Pasifika and refugee cultures."

Hastings District Councillor and Te Aranga Marae chairman Henare O'Keefe said the rising prison population clearly showed the approach to offenders must change.

"If prison was working, we wouldn't be building more. They're not working. Simple as that," he said.

"They say they rehabilitate but they just make better criminals."

Hastings District Councillor Henare O'Keefe
Hastings District Councillor Henare O'Keefe

O'Keefe - who with his wife has fostered more than 200 children over the past two decades - said parenting was the number one most important factor to reduce later offending.

He said pressures that stretched family units had hit Maori families harder.

"You have to take a good look at the parenting - the consistency and quality of it," O'Keefe said.

"There's no such thing as a bad baby. They're not born like that. We've got to get to the cause of the problem."

Justice Minister Amy Adams said tackling over-representation of Maori in the justice system was a priority and an ongoing concern.

"While there has been a significant reduction in total crime over the past five years for both Maori and non-Maori, these reductions have not been as large for Maori when compared to non-Maori. This means that Maori over-representation has not improved," she said.

Nationwide last year, Maori convicts were imprisoned at a higher rate than any year since records began in 1980 - 17.5 per cent, while Europeans were imprisoned at 10.3 per cent.

"There is no one silver bullet, however we remain committed to addressing this issue and focusing on initiatives that will make a difference," Adams said.

She said the Government had implemented "a range of programmes and initiatives" aimed at addressing that.

These included the Youth Crime Action Plan, restorative justice services with Maori values, Maori and Pasifika Youth Courts and iwi panels for low level offending as a form of alternative resolution.