The Over-Representation of Maori in the Criminal Justice System.

A report explains why: small but accumulating biases together on top of adverse early-life social and environmental conditions.

To be frank, this column on criminology is not in an area of my expertise. But in the course of my reading to place economics in a social context – I do that a lot – I came across an old report which I suspect most people who care have not come across earlier either. So this column is really from a journalist telling about a report.

In 2007, the Department of Corrections published Over-representation of Maori in the Criminal Justice System: An Exploratory Report. While the report is about New Zealand Maori, it is a part of an international research program applied to New Zealand. So, to some extent then, its conclusions are not so much about Maori as about universal social processes illustrated by Maori in New Zealand.

The report summarises the over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system as follows (noting that the specific numbers refer to about 2007 when the report was written):

     "Relative to their numbers in the general population, Maori are over-represented at every stage of the criminal justice process. Though forming just 12.5% of the general population aged 15 and over, 42% of all criminal apprehensions involve a person identifying as Maori, as do 50% of all persons in prison. For Maori women, the picture is even more acute: they comprise around 60% of the female prison population.

     "The true scale of Maori over-representation is greater than a superficial reading of such figures tends to convey. For example, with respect to the prison population, the rate of imprisonment for this country's non-Maori population is around 100 per 100,000. If that rate applied to Maori also, the number of Maori in prison at any one time would be no more than 650. There are, however, currently 4000 Maori in prison - six times the number one might otherwise expect.

     "Further, a recent extraction of court criminal history data indicated that over 16,000 Maori males currently between the ages of 20 and 29 years have a record of serving one or more sentences administered by the Department of Corrections. This equates to more than 30% of all Maori males in that age band; the corresponding figure for non-Maori appears to be around 10%. At any given point in time throughout the last decade, fully 3% of all Maori males between the ages of 20 and 29 years were in prison, either on remand or as sentenced prisoners; again, the corresponding figure for non-Maori is less than one sixth of that."

Wow! I knew it but not so quantitatively.

The report describes two different explanatory approaches as to why Maori are over-represented:

             - that bias operates within the criminal justice system; and

            - that a range of adverse early-life social and environmental factors put Maori at greater risk.

It concludes:

     "[T]he two perspectives are by no means mutually exclusive, and both approaches appear to offer part of the explanation for the current state of affairs. The evidence points to an interaction between the two processes, where the operation of one set makes the other more likely. ...

     "There are indications of a degree of over-representation related solely to ethnicity, rather than any other expected factor, at key points in the criminal justice system. Although mostly small at each point, the cumulative effect is likely to be sufficient to justify closer examination and investigation of options to reduce disproportionate representation of Māori.

The report says that, controlling for all other factors, Maori offenders are more likely to:

            have police contact;

            be charged;

            lack legal representation;

            not be granted bail;

            plead guilty;

            be convicted;

            be sentenced to non-monetary penalties;

            be denied release to Home Detention.

The report suggests that the differences ‘often result not from deliberate discrimination, but from unconscious prejudice and stereotyping and as an unintended consequence of prima facie reasonable attitudes, practices, and decisions.’

In aggregate, the  disproportionality of Maori in criminal justice statistics may, to some extent at least, be a cumulative effect, whereby the interactions of relatively small individual effects produce significant disparities in totality at the national level. In other words, relatively minor biasing at each step may combine to produce, at the end point, quite substantial effects.

However the report concludes that it cannot realistically be suggested that current differences in the rate of imprisonment could arise solely from such bias effects.

So it goes on to argue that over the last three decades international and New Zealand research has resulted in a wealth of knowledge explaining why it is that some young people commence on a pathway that leads to persistent offending, while most do, or do so only trivially.

The childhood antecedents of chronic adult offending include the following key factors:

             - Family structure, context, and processes: examples include being born to young mothers, a lack of family stability, a family environment in which conflict and violence is common, and being exposed to harsh punishment.

            - Individual characteristics of the developing child and adolescent: these include factors affecting the child's neurological development, and psychological temperament.

            - Educational participation, engagement and achievement: factors here include school absence, early leaving age and failure to achieve qualifications.

            - The emergence of developmental disorders: included here are childhood conduct disorder, early onset of antisocial behaviour, and abuse of alcohol and other substances during adolescence.

Maori are disproportionately represented for each of the factors. The case seems compelling that Maori over-representation in the criminal justice system rests on a foundation of early-life environmental influences, although these effects may be magnified by the small, but cumulative, biases.

Ultimately these accounts of Maori over-representation in the criminal justice system – and, indeed, of over-representation in poor economic outcomes – involve a process of cumulative circular causation through time of one event impacting on subsequent events both for the individual and through generations.

The report is a decade old. I do not know what measures have since been taken. (Experts are welcome to tell us in the comments.) This economist tends to think of improving the economic circumstances of families and better delivery of preventative services.

One anecdote in the report, well outside my expertise, struck me as ironic. Apparently a Pakeha is more likely to be fined while a Maori incarcerated, because the court judges they are too poor to pay their fines. Aside from the cost of incarceration to taxpayers, I am not sure of the wisdom of sending poor young Maori to the country’s finest finishing school for training criminals.

The saddest paragraph in the report was:

      "Over-representation in offender statistics is mirrored also by over-representation of Maori as victims of crime, a result of the fact that much crime occurs within families, social networks or immediate neighbourhoods".

So there is racial discrimination in crime.