Michael Neilson, New Zealand Herald, September 9, 2023
Te Pāti Māori is challenging Labour to abolish prisons by 2040 and introduce a tikanga-based justice system to address the enormous inequities facing this country’s indigenous peoples.
Co-leader Rawiri Waititi launched what he called a “revolutionary plan to reform the justice system in Aotearoa” that would tackle the institutional racism that has “traumatised and failed Māori communities at every level”.
Under Labour the incarceration rate has dropped dramatically, peaking in 2018 at 213 people per 100,000 and close to the highest rate in the OECD to now 149 per 100,000. It is part of an overall goal to reduce the prison population 30 per cent on 2017 levels by 2033.
The Government has also introduced a range of measures to reduce inequity between Māori and non-Māori, including the five-year strategy Hōkai Rangi.
However, while for Māori the incarceration rate has dropped as well, Māori are still imprisoned at over seven times the rate of non-Māori.
The incarceration rate for Māori men peaked in 2010 at just under two per cent of the entire population, compared to 0.28 per cent for non-Māori.
It is now down to about 1.4 per cent for Māori men, but still over seven times the rate of non-Māori at 0.2 per cent.
Waititi said reforming the justice system was about upholding Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
“We are asserting our tino rangatiratanga to oversee our own tikanga-based models of restorative justice.”
The justice policy includes establishing a Māori Justice Authority, creating a parallel Māori justice system based on tikanga and self-governance, and laying a pathway to abolish prisons in Aotearoa by 2040.
Waititi said 20 per cent of the Corrections, Police, and Courts budgets would be reallocated to the Māori Justice Authority, marking a “significant shift in power and resources to Tangata Whenua”.
Te Pāti Māori would also work with whānau, hapū, and iwi to establish a well-funded Māori Legal Aid Services, and to invest in kaupapa Māori legal units within each community law centre.
The party would also overhaul “discriminatory legislation” by stopping benefit attachment orders, repealing the Bail Amendment Act, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 16, and amending the Clean Slate Act to apply to custodial sentences.
Te Pāti Māori is also pledging to reform drug laws to treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one, and to wipe criminal convictions for drug use and possession.
Te Pāti Māori will also ensure the upholding of human rights in prisons by increasing the steps to freedom grant from $350 to $1000, reinstate the right for all prisoners to vote and enhance community mental health and addiction services.
Waititi said the plan responded to calls from Māori justice experts for transformative change to the justice system.
“It aligns with the Crown’s obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi and represents a significant step towards addressing the systemic racism that has long plagued Aotearoa.
“We must take heed of the recommendations by advocacy groups, on the ground doing the mahi; Inaia Tonu Nei, He Whaipaanga Hou, Turuki Turuki have all presented incredibly thoughtful recommendations that continue to fall on deaf ears.
“Our tipuna did not sign Te Tiriti o Waitangi for whānau to be in care, incarcerated, and continually traumatised. The time for change is well overdue. This is a by Māori, for Māori, according to Māori solution and we will not compromise.”
The most likely governing scenario for Te Pāti Māori would be to work with Labour and the Greens, if they gain enough support after the election, with National ruling out working with them.
Labour leader Chris Hipkins said he thought it was a “sad reality” that prisons would “always” be needed.
“But we do have to think deeply about the fact that we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the OECD. And there are better ways of keeping people on the straight and narrow than just sending them to prison.
“But there will always be a need for prison for some offenders, particularly those repeat and serious offenders.
“But there is more that we can do around rehabilitation, which we are doing, you know, we’ve had a real focus on that there is more that we can do to prevent people falling into a lifetime of crime.”
He said a separate system for Māori was not something they would consider, but he was open to further initiatives.
“There are initiatives that we have put in place like Te Pae Oranga (Iwi Justice Panels), which are about taking different approaches within the justice system that we have at the moment. They are delivering positive outcomes for not just for Māori, but for non-Māori as well.
“There is always room for improvement in the justice system. We’ve been very clear since the time we took government that we need more of a focus on crime prevention, we need more of a focus on restorative justice. And a lot of the changes that we’ve made have been very much focused in that area.”