More than 72 per cent of locals imprisoned last year were Maori.

Ministry of Justice figures show that, of the 600 people imprisoned in the Bay of Plenty and Coromandel last year, 434 were Maori, 143 were European and 23 were other ethnicities.

About 55 per cent of people convicted of crimes were Maori - about 2500 of the 4600 total.

Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services executive director Tommy Wilson said political hats must be taken off to turn Maori imprisonment rates around. Photo/FILE
Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services executive director Tommy Wilson said political hats must be taken off to turn Maori imprisonment rates around. Photo/FILE

Proportionally, Maori were imprisoned almost twice as often as Pakeha - 17.4 per cent, compared to 9.1 per cent for Europeans.

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Te Tuinga Whanau Support Service executive director Tommy Wilson said the most important way to reduce the Maori imprisonment rate was early, robust education.

"For me, it's before they go to school," he said. "There is only one answer, and that's education.

"If you're a 9-year-old Maori boy and you can't read and write, you have an 82 per cent chance of ending up in jail."

Mr Wilson said illiterate prisoners had difficulty getting jobs and houses once released. For many, the two most realistic options were either linking with a gang or going to back to prison.

"You've got to start dealing with the people working on the frontline and put the resources up the front, not at the back with people in offices."

The number of people convicted in the region's courts has dropped by 30 per cent since 2009. However, the rate of imprisonment compared with other sentence types has increased from 9 to 13 per cent during that time.

Waiariki MP Te Ururoa Flavell did not believe prisons were the answer and was saddened by the crime rates.

Crimes were often associated with desperation, hardship, poverty and probably fuelled by things like drugs and alcohol.

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Mr Flavell said the current system was simply not working.

Rangatahi Court and iwi panels were being instigated at the moment and were a far better way of dealing with Maori, he said.

Whanau intervention was a better way of dealing with crime, he said.

"Going to prison is locking people into a cycle. Once you get into that cycle, it is very hard to break."

Mr Flavell said there were elements of institutionalised racism associated with the whole of the justice system too.

"Maori were more likely to apprehended, charged, locked up and appear in front of the courts and be given different sentences to non-Maori."

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."

Nationwide last year, Maori were imprisoned at a higher rate than any year since records began in 1980. Fifty-six per cent of all people imprisoned in 2016 were Maori - also the highest figure ever recorded.

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

Ms Adams said the Government had implemented "a range of programmes and initiatives" which aimed to address this.

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

Bay of Plenty / Coromandel new prisoners, 2016:

Maori: 434
Pakeha: 143
Other: 23

Total: 600

Source: Ministry of Justice