A month ago, the Corrections Minister said without equivocation, to no less than the Kingiitanga, that “Reducing reoffending by Māori offenders is a high priority for Corrections.” A nice line, sure, but an empty one, totally divorced from reality, if we’re to take anything away from the Waitangi Tribunal’s report on Māori reoffending rates, Tū Mai Te Rangi!, released on Tuesday.
It’s a pretty sober read. Looking at the last five years of Corrections policy, the Tribunal found that Corrections was in breach of the Treaty principles of active protection and equity. The Department’s attempts at achieving a 25 percent reduction in reoffending by 2025 were failing, and the gap between Māori reoffending and non-Māori reoffending was widening. Corrections had no specific target or strategy for reducing Māori reoffending, had no dedicated funding pool for rehabilitating and reintegrating the single largest demographic of prisoners, barely consulted with Māori on how to improve outcomes for Māori prisoners, and were divided on whether it was even all that important to focus on reducing Māori reoffending. The Tribunal concluded the report with a forceful ultimatum: “The nation cannot afford this situation to continue.”
Let’s call the situation what it is: Māori mass incarceration. As JustSpeak noted on Tuesday, the overall crime rate been in decline for 25 years but the prison population has quadrupled, fuelled almost entirely by the imprisonment of Māori men and women. For the last two decades, Māori have made up around half of New Zealand’s sentenced prison population. The proportion of released Māori prisoners reimprisoned two years after release from prison is 41.3 percent, and after five years, 54.7 percent are reimprisoned; for contrast, only 30.4 percent of non-Māori released from prison are reimprisoned after two years, and only 43.6 percent are reimprisoned after five years.
This is all in the Tribunal report – page 11, to be exact. So is this: that Reducing Reoffending goal the government proudly announced in June 2012 – 25 percent by 2025 – had reversed from 12.1 percent progress for all prisoners in June 2014 to 5.6 percent overall progress in June 2016. Māori bore the brunt of this: in June 2012, progress towards the goal was 6.6 percent for Māori and 7.1 percent for non-Māori, but in June 2016, progress had slipped for to 6.4 percent for non-Māori… and 0.5 percent for Māori. The Tribunal wasn’t surprised by this: not only did they find that the Department knew that the RR25% goal was “inherently unrealistic”, they found that the target “was designed in such a way that achieving equitable outcomes was unlikely.”
Still, Louise Upston was in the media on Tuesday pointing to that very goal as evidence that Corrections was ‘doing something’. The Prime Minister was getting his feet wet too, claiming in the face of all evidence otherwise that “we are doing a much better job of reducing recidivism” and that Corrections had “lifted the effort for all prisoners.” Ray Smith, Corrections’ Chief Executive, argued that gangs were the real problem here, even though gang affiliation statistics are famously opaque and the Tribunal itself expressed scepticism about that argument –
There was, to us, some circularity in the argument of Crown witnesses in this respect. On the one hand, disproportionate reoffending rates was less a Māori issue than a gang or socio-economic issue while, on the other, there is a strong correlation between Māori, socio-economic deprivation and gang membership.
Neither Corrections nor National has shown any interest in acting on the Tribunal’s recommendations. If they had any interest, if this was the priority they say it is, they arguably would have acted much earlier, given we have over thirty years of literature on this very subject; if they had any interest, this Minister or the previous Minister would have requested even one briefing specific to what Corrections is doing to reduce Māori mass incarceration. Instead, the Tribunal found “hesitancy in the Department to commit to a bold approach”, a fear that if they were to do anything to reduce Māori mass incarceration they would have to change, because “if the current approach is followed, [Corrections] does not believe it will succeed.” They’ve tried nothing and they’re all out of ideas.
Māori mass incarceration is a national disgrace, and it’s going to hurt more and more people if we don’t act. There are perhaps 10,000 Māori children with a parent in prison, and we know the effects of imprisonment aren’t just limited to the individual sitting in the cell. If we keep following the current course – if we don’t reconcile with the racism embedded in our justice system; if we don’t overhaul our drug laws, which disproportionately hurt Māori; if the government doesn’t listen to Māori and substantially alter the goals of and ideas behind our punitive, all-consuming prison system – our tamariki are at risk, our communities are at risk. Reforming Corrections will never be the sole solution but it is part of the solution. If we don’t act now, it will continue to be a massive part of the problem.
To quote JustSpeak Chair Julia Whaipooti, Corrections needs to do more than give programmes Māori names; it needs to allocate more than relatively small amounts of money without any focused strategy. Right now, it looks like Corrections’ current leadership is more interested in shouting ‘not our problem’ than taking action, and National’s more than happy to enable that. It’s a National disgrace.