Smaller prisons, better visiting hours and more whānau involvement are some of the ideas researchers suggest to break the cycle of Māori incarceration.

Māori are imprisoned at six times the rate of non-Māori yet as outlined in the paper Whānau Ora and Imprisonment, released today, the state has long ignored Māori approaches to justice.

Lead author Sir Kim Workman (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Rangitaane) said the Government must recognise a Māori-informed solution.

"Such a strategy would include the full-bodied incorporation of tikanga Māori and a whānau-centric approach to the management of prisons."

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The paper took a historical look at Māori approaches to justice, then what happened post-1840 with colonisation, through to today.

"We found prison was not only a tool to punish wrongdoing, but to assimilate communities into the western justice system," Workman said.

The individualistic, punitive western approach contrasted with that of Māori, which was largely forward-looking, aimed at repairing past relationships while accounting for past wrongs.

Sir Kim Workman (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Rangitaane) says the Government must recognise a Māori-informed solution. Photo / File
Sir Kim Workman (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Rangitaane) says the Government must recognise a Māori-informed solution. Photo / File

It also included the victim and their whānau or hapū in the process, prioritised a desire to reintegrate offenders into communities, heal victims and maintain a balance between the acknowledgement of past behaviour and moving on.

This was not a soft option though, with the appropriate utu (payment) for any crime potentially including death, loss of resources, and at the very least public shame and humiliation.

Such traditional Māori forms of justice had long been ignored, and there was denial Māori even had a justice system, Workman said.

"We are suggesting are whānau facing system, consistent with tikanga, from one that assesses and rehabilitates as an individual, to one that looks at the role of whānau in supporting offenders. At the moment that does not happen.

"People who want to visit their family members in prison have all sorts of difficulties getting there, from location to issues getting away from work.

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"We envisage redesigning prisons themselves. Do we need 1500-bed prisons? Or are we better off having smaller regional ones, so whānau are not having to travel hundreds of miles to visit them. Then there could be more frequent access, and whānau be more involved from the outset on the strategy for reintegration."

Such an approach would put more focus on working to restore the inmates' mana, protect their tapu, achieve balance and, at the end of it all, re-establish the offender back to their community as a fully functioning human being, Workman said.

Their paper complimented the Government's five-year strategy Hōkai Rangi, unveiled in August, to reduce the Māori proportion of the prison muster, and which included increased whānau and iwi engagement.

"The Government has stated that it is committed to reducing the numbers of Māori in prison, and this paper provides the criminal justice sector with a clear pathway for disrupting the cycle of Māori mass incarceration," Workman said.

Co-author Professor Tracey McIntosh said the need for change was urgent.

"Prisons were not a part of our past prior to colonial settlement and we cannot continue to let them colonise our future. The need for change is urgent."

The paper is part of the Te Arotahi series produced by the Māori centre of research excellence, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga.