Growing up as a child in 1970s New Zealand, inequality was never an issue. Everybody had jobs - and in the small towns I grew up in, nobody's family was obviously wealthier or better off than anybody else's.

Being flashy would have been frowned on. A collective community cold shoulder would have been given to anybody who acted as though they were better than their neighbour.

Besides, it would have been pretty jolly tricky to flaunt any trappings of material success back in the day. There simply weren't the consumer goods to buy back then.

The number of expensive luxury cars in the country could have been counted on one person's digits. Mobile phones had yet to be invented and the greed-is-good mantra had yet to be inculcated into the Western consciousness.


So the concept of economic inequality didn't really strike me until I was working as a young radio reporter at 1ZH in Hamilton.

My job was to head down to the courts a couple of times a week and keep an eye on the cases and report on anything major that came up.

It was a great learning experience - in terms of my career as a journalist and as a study of human nature.

For a young woman fresh out of a Catholic boarding school, watching stories of human passion and sorrow and violence and unimaginable cruelty unfold was not so much a steep learning curve as a steep learning right angle.

And it was in the Hamilton District Court that I first saw the difference between coming from a family with money and influence and coming from a family that was dysfunctional and impoverished of spirit.

A young man was in the dock - he was charged with assault, resisting arrest, offensive language - the usual offences a young man clocks up when he's mad with the drink.

I knew him as an acquaintance.

I wasn't surprised to see him in the dock but I was certainly taken aback by his spruced-up appearance. His hair was cut, he was freshly shaved, his tatts were covered by an expensive new suit and he was being represented by a fancy lawyer.

You shouldn't be able to get a soft option simply because your parents earn more money than their neighbours.


His parents, respectable business people, were in the front row to support their black sheep of a son.

I listened, astonished, as the lawyer painted this aggressive oik as a brilliant young man, a flower of New Zealand youth, whose enormous potential would be blighted by a conviction.

Imagine the loss to the country should this extraordinary human being be denied the opportunity to flourish - on and on the lawyer went, certainly earning his exorbitant hourly rate. Sure enough, the young man was discharged without conviction.

Two cases on, another young man was appearing for sentencing for almost exactly the same crimes. Assault and resisting arrest after a bender.

Only this young man was Maori, in jeans and a dirty T-shirt, with no family to support him and represented by a court-appointed lawyer.

This young man was sent to prison - from memory it was for nine months - to act as a short sharp shock, according to the judge, to deter him from a life of crime.

I thought it was terribly unfair but I didn't think it was racism. I thought it was about the difference in economic circumstances.

Thirty years on I think it's much the same in the case of the four Northland teenagers who were sentenced to home detention after going on a burglary spree totalling nearly $80,000 in stolen property.

There was outrage that the four (Pakeha) boys had got off so lightly. Many suggested the outcome would have been quite different if the boys had been Maori.

But once again, I think it comes down to economics. They or rather their families, have repaid some of the money owed and are able to pay reparations.

The judge, under the Sentencing Act, is required to look at home detention as an option where the sentence would otherwise be two years' jail or less and in this case, the judge was able to take this option because the boys all had homes and they all had homes with good cellphone coverage.

When people are on home detention, there must be cellphone coverage.

And so a lot of young people miss out on the softer option because they don't have supportive families, they don't have a place they can call home and some of them live in remote parts of the country where cellphone coverage is, at best, patchy.

I can understand why people were upset at what appears to be a very light sentence for a bunch of overprivileged little oiks who went out thieving purely for giggles.

But accusing the judge of racism is unfair.

Blame the Sentencing Act in the first instance, if you want to, and then let's work on improving the circumstances of under-privileged young people, many of them Maori, so that the law can be seen to be applied fairly and evenly across society.

You shouldn't be able to get a soft option simply because your parents earn more money than their neighbour.

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