Levelling the legal playing field will need courage, says Dr Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Maori Party
Justice is a cornerstone of any free society and should be available to all New Zealanders.
Our justice system is not perfect and each successive Government has rightly worked on various reforms to improve its fairness.
However, if we are to be genuine about addressing the disproportionate statistics that confront Maori, then we must have the courage to be honest and look at the systematic discrimination the justice system perpetuates.
Last week Garth George argued in the Herald that Maori offenders are arrested at three times the rate of non-Maori because Maori offend at a much higher rate.
He continues to add that this is obvious when 51 per cent of the prison population is Maori. Unfortunately this argument completely misses the point.
For the same offence or behaviour committed by Maori and non-Maori, police are three times more likely to arrest the Maori offender.
The Human Rights Commission this year drafted a discussion document called Structural Discrimination and it also found that for the same behaviour Maori are four to five times more likely to be apprehended, prosecuted and convicted than their non-Maori counterparts.
Moreover, Maori are seven times more likely to be given a custodial sentence and 11 times more likely to be remanded in custody.
In my younger days - I won't say how long ago - I did a piece of research into the backgrounds of the prisoners serving on the infamous Block D at Paremoremo Prison, New Zealand's maximum security prison. All the prisoners I spoke to entered the justice system with minor offending which escalated over time.
I'm not saying that Maori don't commit crimes or that they should not be sentenced or rehabilitated. But let us be honest.
There are societal attitudes and prejudices about Maori and crime. This leads to an increase in profiling by police, which in turn frames the application of discretion used and ultimately increases the arrest rates for Maori.
Once offenders are in front of the courts, Maori are more likely to be convicted and given a custodial sentence for the same crime.
These attitudes and prejudices are normalised once Maori are placed in the corrections system as the recidivism rates are excessively high. Kim Workman, executive director of the Rethinking Crime and Punishment project, says we are becoming a state of mass imprisonment where prison becomes an accepted and, perhaps, inevitable part of the life of the community.
This is why the Maori Party is calling for a review of the entire justice system.
There have been many justice reforms produced that have been successful. I was proud to work with Justice Minister Simon Power on the Drivers of Crime policy, which advanced maternity and early parenting support programmes such as Kaitoko Whanau and Oranga Whanau and restorative justice projects such as the Whare Oranga Ake Units, which rehabilitate Maori prisoners in a kaupapa Maori environment.
Maori Focus Units, marae-based Rangatahi Courts and Family Group Conferencing are also significant programmes picked up by previous governments that continue today.
But this is not enough. We also need to look beyond reforms and programmes. It's important to consider the justice system in its entirety - from police and courts through to corrections. The financial implications alone provide a practical incentive. We spend billions on law and order in this country that could be better utilised in our education and health systems.
But there is a higher sense of ethics and fairness that we must resolve - the way social and cultural dynamics such as attitudes, bias and prejudices are produced and reproduced in our justice system; how these dynamics impact on the types of justice different parts of New Zealand society, in particular Maori, experience; and the way these dynamics are normalised in our society.
In reviewing the justice system, we will need to consider how it encompasses te ao Maori, tikanga Maori and matauranga Maori - principles and practices of Maori justice. Ideas of justice and fairness shouldn't be limited to monoculturalism but reflect the bicultural partnership our country was founded on and the many cultures that make up our diverse society.
It is easy to call for harsher sentences, more prisons, less probation and less judicial discretion. It is easy to say that any alternative argument is based on some kind of victim mentality or that it's soft on crime. But justice is a right of all citizens, regardless of race and creed. If we can all agree that the justice system needs to be fair then let us have a debate, and let us confront these issues together so we can move forward.