COMMENT:

If there is a measure of failure in this country, it's the over representation of Māori in our criminal justice system. Māori make up over half of the prison muster, but just 14 per cent of the population.

There are no easy answers to it. The radical Left blame it on racism. If only the police and the courts weren't structured against Māori, the issue would be solved. But if we removed tomorrow what's commonly called "unconscious bias" we'd still have a big problem.

Unthinking conservatives see it as a problem with Māori themselves, ignoring all manner of historic issues that have condemned many Māori to exist within communities where we know problems flourish.

Advertisement

Somewhere in the middle, most of us exist but we are not without our foibles. And one particular blind spot is what the Treaty settlements are doing.

Take the tribe that covers most of the South Island, Ngai Tahu, for example. The first major iwi to reach a settlement, Ngai Tahu have a reputation among Māori as being conservative and effective.

Prudent investments mean Ngai Tahu's financial base has ballooned from an initial settlement of $170 million in 1998 to more than $1.6b last year. Its rate of growth exceeds both inflation and population growth.

But the iwi is not simply squirrelling money away for a rainy day, they are spending millions each year on the betterment of their people. Two initiatives are particularly noteworthy. The first is a saving scheme that imparts annual distributions, gives money to newborn babies, and matches savings contributions. It's something akin to KiwiSaver but it started before that was created.

Māori make up more than half of New Zealand prison inmates, but just 14 per cent of the population. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Māori make up more than half of New Zealand prison inmates, but just 14 per cent of the population. Photo / Paul Estcourt

While this scheme is established to support the iwi members in retirement, it is its earlier life initiatives that are perhaps more important. Every five-year-old gets a school starter pack to help them on their education journey, and it's a signal as to the value the iwi is putting on education.

Ngai Tahu spent over half a million dollars on scholarships in 2018. Education rates among Ngai Tahu have skyrocketed and in turn this will prove transformative.

But the issues of Māori in criminal justice are too big to simply say the Treaty settlements will solve them. Furthermore, we ought be tackling these issues with a fierce urgency.

The resources of the Crown are required but the model by which we take action ought be one of partnership. Many iwi are now well-geared toward community action and their access and expertise needs to be utilised.

Partnership is something much talked about in New Zealand but seldom has it been adequately undertaken. If we are to meaningfully tackle the causation of Māori overrepresentation in prisons, that's what we'll need.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be at Waitangi representing Te Uepū, the Justice Advisory Group. While I suck up the history, I will have one eye firmly on the future.

The overrepresentation of Maori in our justice system ought be seen as an indicator of this country's health. And by that measure we are not in great shape.

So many roads lead to prison; family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues, overcrowded housing, educational underachievement, unemployment and poverty.

Meaningfully changing the statistics in our criminal justice will mean meaningful changes in these areas.

The challenge is a big one, and perhaps that's why we're quietly ignored it for so long. It's time to bring it front and centre. In very real ways it speaks to the future that New Zealand wants.

• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He has also been appointed to Te Uepū the Government's Justice Advisory Group.