That New Zealand is a highly imprisoned country is pretty widely known - but even those who know the numbers can be excused some confusion. For the vast majority of people - both inside and outside the country - the imprisonment rate seems incongruous with New Zealand's image. Are we really so dangerous and riddled with crime that our imprisonment rates must be 34 per cent higher than Australia, 39 per cent higher than the UK, and 73 per cent higher than Canada? Is New Zealand really that rough and lawless?

Political one-upmanship between National and Labour, increasing sentence lengths, and greater difficulty in gaining parole can help explain our growing prison numbers. But without question, any analysis will look naked if it fails to address the moa in the room.

Fifty per cent of the prison population is Maori. It's a fact regularly cited in official documents, and from time to time it garners attention in the media. Given they make up 15 per cent of the population, it's immediately clear that Maori incarceration is highly disproportionate, but it's not until the numbers are given a greater examination that a more accurate perspective emerges.

With an overall population of 4.6 million and a prison muster of 9400, New Zealand has 204 prisoners per 100,000 people. It's this ratio that's used to compare incarceration rates around the world, but it's the internal comparison, between Maori and non-Maori that is more interesting, and more troubling, for New Zealand.


If Maori were imprisoned at the same rate as non-Maori, then the combined total prison population would reduce from 9400 to fewer than 4900. In this scenario, the country has no prison crisis and we're closing rather than building prisons. New Zealand's imprisonment ratio drops from 204 to 105 and we slide from being 7th in the OECD to 20th, smugly behind Australia, the UK and Canada. In other words, if Maori crime and conviction rates are the same as non-Maori, the effect is utterly transformative.

Looking at the data in this way, the impact Maori have on New Zealand's overall incarceration rate becomes clearer and more concerning. That this impact stems from within just 15 per cent of the population hints at the significance of the problem, which further analysis of the data plays out.

The Maori imprisonment ratio works out to 609 per 100,000, meaning Maori are nearly six times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Maori. If the entire population were to be imprisoned at the same rate as Maori, New Zealand's prison muster would skyrocket toward 30,000. The numbers seem dystopian, yet they very much reflect the realities of many Maori families and neighbourhoods.

In this way, the discourse that New Zealand has a relatively high overall incarceration rate is rather misleading. It's more accurate to say that New Zealand has pockets of incarceration rates at such high levels in its indigenous population that they distort the national picture.

These are troubling findings that we ought to confront. Yet I fear discussions around this topic will be difficult given it involves two flash points of conversation - "Maori" and "crime" - that tend to draw out the worst in political and public debates. When it comes to crime, we too often allow rhetoric and emotion to elbow past logic and reason. And in discussing Maori issues, we Pakeha often seem to forget our manners - while in academia the reverse is true; some intellectuals become so afraid of causing offence that they become intellectually reticent.

While I fear somewhat for the tenor of the conversation around Maori crime and imprisonment, the greater fear is that we fail to have the conversation at all.

Last year, a couple of lovely old codgers cornered me after a presentation I gave on crime to a community group in North Canterbury. One said, "It's a Maori problem, they need to sort out their own." To which his offsider delivered a short reply: "Since when did Kiwis stop lending a hand to help out mates?"

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.
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