Almost half of the women imprisoned in New Zealand have not been convicted of the crime that is keeping them behind bars.

A sweeping 2013 law change designed to create greater bail hurdles for violent offenders has had an outsize effect on women, and Māori women in particular.

At the time, 933 women, 558 of whom were Māori, were remanded in custody. Six years later 1836 women, including 1194 Māori, were remanded.

The changes were supposed to target offenders such as those who killed teenagers Christie Marceau and Augustine Borrell- who were both on bail at the time.


University of Canterbury Criminal Justice director Jarrod Gilbert told the Herald the burden of proof for bail had shifted from the prosecution to the defendant.

"What that means is that it was much more difficult to get bail and so consequently more people were remanded in custody."

These figures don't come as a shock to Wellington defence lawyer Ngaroma Tahana.

She said the increasing remand level was a symptom of the racial prejudices that have plagued Māori women since colonisation.

"More and more I'm seeing bail opposition, and those oppositions are not always backed up by sound evidence. So it can be enough for Police to say they have concerns about drug issues or children being in the house without providing any supporting evidence."

Within that, she said often the location of bail addresses was the problem, which were a huge issue for the people concerned because that can be where their tamariki are.

"Whakapapa and whanaungatanga [sense of family connection] are so integral to our being, and what this incarceration does, is that it divides or splits those whakapapa links."

Former prisoner Patricia Walsh knows the effects of extended remands too well, she spent 12 months on remand for a non-violent charge.


"Remand is actually a bigger punishment than imprisonment, you know, once you get a term of imprisonment you know what you've got, you know there's an end date. But when you're on remand, you don't know how long you'll be there. It's a painful place to be."

Your wairua [soul], it actually impacts on your wairua, you do have dark thoughts."

Fear over what was happening to children and wider whanau made time spent remanded in custody even more difficult for Walsh, who said the consequences were felt across generational divides.

"Māori women have integral roles that they need to play to ensure that the whakapapa [lineage or ancestry] is pure and the mokopuna [grandchild/descendant] can stand strong. We're already in pain, you put us in prison and the roots of that pain goes deeper."

Intergenerational effects were also a concern for Tahana, who said the increasing remand numbers for Māori women threatens their role as the te whare tangata [store house of people].

Not only are more women being held in remand, but the amount of time they are spending has also increased.


The Sensible Sentencing Trust lobbied for the 2013 law change- and Spokesperson Jess McVicar said she thought both victims and the wider community were now safer.

While she understood the change had affected Māori women more, she said people needed to actually look at the deeper issue of why the offending was happening, instead of removing the law.

While she stands by the law change, McVicar was concerned about the increasing length of time people were spending in remand.

"They need to get their day in court sooner, for the victim as well as the offender."

Another former prisoner, who the Herald has agreed not to name, also said remand was much harder because you don't know what's going on or how long you'll be there.

"In that place you come out depressed, it's depressing."


In remand I even asked for counselling, and they told me that it was impossible because I could be getting out and I haven't been sentenced yet."

She said her case officer gave her a medical form to fill out, but nurses later told her she couldn't see a counsellor because there was already a long waiting list and she hadn't been sentenced yet.

Corrections said counselling services were available to prisoners on remand on a case-by-case basis and depended on the individual's situation and needs.

Ministry of Justice chief operating officer Carl Crafar said the number of people being remanded was determined by judicial decisions, while the time on remand is primarily driven by how long their case takes to be resolved in court which is effected by a range of things.

"This is increasing due to later guilty pleas in the criminal court process; a lack of sufficient resources to deal with the additional court hearings; and an increase of category three cases, which are more serious and require more court events."

When asked about why there had been an increase in the number of women held in remand for non-violent offences the Ministry said these were Judiciary decisions.


Crafar said Justice sector agencies were working together to reduce the pressures on the remand population, and had improved the schedule and utilisation of courtrooms to ensure more hearings can take place.

While Walsh's time behind bars has long since ended, her concerns over the spike in Māori women being held in remand is only growing.

"It leads you further away from understanding what your role is for future generations, you don't learn that in prison."