More than 72 per cent of those imprisoned in the region last year were Maori - the highest rate in 30 years - prompting one Rotorua lawyer to call for a marae-type justice system to be considered.

Ministry of Justice figures show 434 of the 600 people imprisoned in the Bay of Plenty and Coromandel last year 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.

Proportionally, convicted Maori were given jail time almost twice as often as convicted Pakeha - 17.4 per cent of the time, compared with 9.1 per cent for Europeans.


Rotorua lawyer Louis Te Kani, principal at Families Matter law practice, said the figures were alarming.

Mr Te Kani said he saw a large number of repeat offenders going through the courts, and the more they were before the courts, the higher the chance of that person being sent to prison.

Mr Te Kani suggested while those who commit serious crimes should go to jail, a marae justice space system could be an alternative, perhaps for offenders aged 18 to 25.

"Prison is not the answer, there must be a better way. [We want] to find alternatives that are able to address specific Maori offenders, such as the Rangatahi courts. Maori offenders need to be seen and heard in an environment more [akin] to their needs...the current system is not working.

"A whole range of sanctions could be implemented in a court setting on a marae."

He said in order for a marae-type process to happen there would need to be the will of the Government, and resources.

Another local lawyer, Wiremu Te Are, principal of Te Are Law, said he was concerned the figures were too high.

"There is a lot of room for improvement."


Mr Te Are said serious crimes should always be subjected to custodial sentences but electronically monitored sentences could be another alternative.

"It's an injustice there are not more options explored such as home detention as a reliable deterrent to crime."

General manager of Rotorua-based Te Taumata Trust Roana Bennett said education and the opportunities as a result were the most important factors in reducing crime.

"Education is the key. If we can support these young people to remain engaged in education, the probability of them arriving in prison diminishes," Ms Bennett said.

Ms Bennett said she believed recent local trends of an increasing number of "disenfranchised" school students and an increase in youth crime were linked.

"The education system is failing because they're not recognising that some of these kids need a different style of environment and engagement to be able to fully participate in school."

She said methamphetamine was having a significant effect on both of these issues.

"It is hugely complex. That's why I'm saying if you can engage these kids in education... they're not going to end up in prison."

Ms Bennett pointed to comments from Children's Commissioner and former Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft, who said 83 per cent of prison inmates under the age of 20 had a care and protection record with Child, Youth and Family.

"There's really a staggering and profoundly concerning link between care and protection issues and adverse life outcomes, shall we say, in the criminal justice system," Judge Becroft said.

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," she said.

Nationwide last year, convicted 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.

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.