The prison population has hit 10,000 - an all-time high. 56% of these inmates are Maori - another all time high. What's going on?
In February 2017, New Zealand’s prison population hit 10,100 - an all-time high - and an increase of 364% in the last 30 years. A month later, the NZ Herald reported that 56.3% of that total are Maori - also an all-time high - even though Maori make up only 15% of the population. Unfortunately, Maori are seven times more likely to be given a custodial sentence than pakeha and eleven times as many Maori are remanded in custody awaiting trial. The corollary is that if Maori were incarcerated at the same rate as non-Maori, there would only be 4,900 Kiwis in prison. Any attempt to explain New Zealand’s high prison population must therefore begin with an analysis of why Maori are so over-represented in our offending statistics.
The impact of colonialism on Maori imprisonment
New Zealand’s colonial past is populated with social, economic and political policies which subjugated and penalised Maori. Moana Jackson (1988) has described these historical policies as:
“specific acts of institutional racism and social policy that have denied Maori people the economic and emotional resources to retain and transmit their cultural values”.
He argues that as a result, New Zealand now has a monocultural justice system that entirely ignores the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi which was supposed to establish a partnership between the British and Maori - and, in the Māori translation, guaranteed the latter unqualified exercise of ‘chieftainship’ over their own lands, villages, property and treasures.
It is self-evident that if Maori ceased to own their own land, the chiefs’ power base would be diminished and their capacity for partnership eliminated. AUT lecturer, Kylee Quince, says that in the 60 years following the signing of the treaty, this is exactly what happened: the settlers and the colonial government went about acquiring Maori land and resources “by way of negotiation, crooked dealings, warfare and confiscation”. Prof John Pratt, from VUW, cites evidence that from 1840 onwards, Maori cultural values and mechanisms of social control were also suppressed by the magistrates of the time as the British justice system was imposed on the country. During this period, the Maori language was banned and Maori culture and mana were slowly ‘silenced’.
Jackson argues that as a result, New Zealand now has a monocultural justice system, one that ignores Maori culture and values. Quince says that as a result,
“Maori are underrepresented as police, legislators, judges, lawyers and jurors and consequently lack any input into the norms and processes of the system”.
She goes on to say there is a perception among many Maori that the law is a “blunt pakeha tool of coercion against Maori” and points to the on-going fraught relationship between Maori and police.
Perhaps therefore it should be no surprise that from about 1950 onwards, Maori have been prosecuted more frequently than European offenders, held on remand more frequently, and then sent to prison more frequently. Maori defendants are also less likely to have legal representation and more likely to plead guilty. In other words, there is institutional bias by the police who arrest more Maori, by lawyers who represent Maori and by judges who sentence Maori. Academics ascribe this bias to:
“the formation of unfavourable stereotypes of Maoris in the minds of adjudicating officials”.
This brief introduction to institutional racism goes some way to explaining why 56% of prisoners in New Zealand are Maori.
The introduction of neoliberalism to New Zealand
Things got worse in 1984. Up to that point in our history, New Zealand was a ‘social democratic’ society with a strong focus on full employment, equal opportunities for everyone (except perhaps for Maori) and a supportive welfare state.
But in the latter half of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power and implemented neoliberal, trickle-down economic policies. In 1984, these feral ideas found fertile soil in New Zealand under the Labour Government of David Lange and Roger Douglas. New Zealand abandoned its long-standing commitment to full employment, sold off state assets, removed subsidies to industry and agriculture, and cut welfare payments. Over the next 30 years, the gap between the rich and the poor grew at an alarming rate, and the compassionate egalitarian society we once perceived ourselves to be, began to dissolve.
Unfortunately, neoliberalism is also associated with punitive penal policies towards those who can’t keep up. Cavadino and Dignan (2006) write:
“The neoliberal society tends to exclude both those who fail on the economic marketplace and those who fail to abide by the law - in the latter case by means of imprisonment…”
The authors cite research suggesting that...
“as a general rule, economic inequality is (also) related to penal severity: the greater the inequality in society the higher the overall level of punishment”.
New Zealand commentator Max Rashbrooke says this happens because the income gap causes people to "lose their sense of what life is like for people in the other half".
Kylee Quince agrees that New Zealand is ‘incredibly harsh on people’ at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. She points out that:
"About half of people in prison in New Zealand are there for property and drug offending. Very few Western nations send people to prison for those types of offences”.
In general, those treated the harshest are Maori who have been at the bottom ever since their lands were stolen.
Explaining the relationship between neoliberalism and our high rate of imprisonment
John Pratt believes that ‘penal populism’ is the mechanism by which neoliberalism exacerbated our exploding prison population. He says the social and economic changes introduced in the 1980s created a sense of existential angst; job security disappeared, the influence of trade unions declined, finance companies collapsed and inflation went up. The rising crime rate (prior to 1990) also contributed to these anxieties. Prof Pratt believes there was a perception that governments were no longer in control (of crime in particular), and that politicians and political processes no longer responded to the needs of ‘ordinary people’.
In 1996, this dissatisfaction with the political process led to the abolition of ‘first past the post’ and the introduction of MMP. This facilitated the rise of the Act party which was subsequently responsible for the introduction of a ‘three strikes’ laws in New Zealand. This adds to the prison population by reducing the availability of parole.
In the latter half of the 20th century, there were also significant changes in the structure of the media. Public service television virtually disappeared while social media and talkback radio enabled ordinary citizens, as opposed to experts, to express their point of view. Emotion rather than reason became a legitimate and significant portion of the political narrative. Governments stopped listening to what judicial experts had to say about the ineffectiveness of prison as a deterrent and passed more ‘tough on crime’ laws. In response, between 1985 and 1999, the prison population doubled.
From 2001, the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust played a major role as journalists increasingly turned to Garth McVicar for ‘expert’ analysis. Because of the extraordinary exposure McVicar was granted by the media, ‘law and order’ became the dominant discussion of the decade. As a result, even though crime began dropping in the 1990s, the public were led to believe it was still going up. Between 2000 and 2008, the Labour Government had to build four new prisons to keep up with the consequences of their punitive policies.
The National Party also played its part. In 2011, in response to the murder of 18-year-old Christie Marceau who was stabbed to death by a young man on remand, Garth McVicar began yet another law and order campaign. National then introduced the Bail Amendment Act (2013) making it substantially harder for offenders awaiting trial to get bail.
The number of prisoners on remand sky-rocketed and in 2015, the prison population hit 9,000. In a propaganda piece in the NZ Herald, Justice Minister, Judith Collins attempted to blame the growing prison population on an increase in violent offenders. But even she had to acknowledge that most of the increase over the previous 12 months was due to the growing number of inmates on remand. In her superficial explanation, Ms Collins omitted to mention that the vast majority of these remand prisoners are Maori. In fact, she made no mention of the over-representation of Maori in prison at all. Nor did she mention poverty or the increase in inequality in New Zealand as contributing factors to the burgeoning prison population.
Another year has gone by and now over 10,000 Kiwis are in prison. It is not possible to explain New Zealand’s record high rate of imprisonment without reference to New Zealand’s colonial past. There is no doubt that this pushed Maori to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The introduction of neoliberal policies in the 1980s increased economic disparity pushing Maori (and everyone else near the bottom rung) down even further. For the homeless, it pushed them off the ladder altogether – often into prison.
By highlighting violent crime, the Sensible Sentencing Trust, with the willing help of the media, then united the National and Labour Parties in a seemingly endless competition to be tough on crime. ‘Criminals’ have become an easy target, scapegoated by politicians of every persuasion for practically every problem in society. In this punitive environment, passing tough on crime laws is easy. No wonder our prison population is at an all-time high.