Calls for changes to bail rules so Māori and those from other low-income communities aren’t remanded straight to prison

Since Topia Rameka was appointed deputy chief executive officer at the Department of Corrections three years ago, he has tried to visit prison inmates pretty much every week. He was at Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison and remand unit earlier this month; he’s visiting Auckland Prison this week.

The Māori prisoners tell him of the need for greater rehabilitation support, even from when they are first remanded in custody, he tells Newsroom. “They’re quite honest and open.”

“We’re not always going to get things perfect, by no means. But we do implore and we do encourage our staff to do the right things, even when no one is looking.”

Rameka says Corrections has limited ability to influence how many remanded and sentenced prisoners are sent to prison. “Before us there is this thing called the judiciary, they make the ultimate call as to who comes into our care and management,” he observes. “Before them, there’s this thing called the police. And before the police there’s this thing called life – and the womb ahead of that.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledges there is more they can do. Many prisoners are on their second or third lag; according to a 2008 study, the re-imprisonment rate over 48 months for Māori offenders (55 percent) was considerably higher than the rates for Pākehā (45 percent) and Pacific (36 percent). So the failure to help Māori inmates rehabilitate and reintegrate is a major one.

Even before young offenders are jailed for the first time, there is a great deal of room for the justice and corrections systems to improve.

Rameka says Corrections bail support officers work with the judiciary to investigate alternatives to custody. And an opt-in Bail Support Service helps defendants and their whānau understand their bail conditions, address their unmet social needs, and maintain strong family connections. The service is intended to help defendants stay free of crime while on bail and make positive change earlier in the criminal justice process.

There are calls to go further: the JustSpeak justice group argues bail rules should be turned on their head, so the onus is not on defendants to prove they have a stable residence where they can stay out of trouble, while they await trial.

“You could say this is where the rubber hits the road. We’ve had pilots happening across the country and seen good progress, now it is time to ramp that up. It is true that Māori are still over-represented and I want that number to start coming down.”
– Kelvin Davis, Corrections Minister

Violent and sexual crime reports have dropped in the past year, according to police figures.

And official criminal justice statistics, published yesterday without fanfare, provide more good news: the numbers of adults charged with crimes was down 19 percent to 54,308 in the fiscal year. The prison muster has dropped from 10,000-plus when Labour came to power, to 8,397 a year ago, and to 7,847 yesterday.

That’s welcomed by those working in the sector, who are in almost universal agreement that imprisonment is an utterly ineffectual tool for reducing crime rates. They point to a weight of essentially unchallenged evidence that prison sentences, however harsh, don’t deter violent offending – instead, they create a new generation of more hardened criminals, who reoffend because they are so ill-equipped to return to the community – and another generation of children without parents.

The number of convicted adults has fallen

So the reduction in crime, convictions and jail sentences should be almost unmitigated good news – but within all this is some cause for concern.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis campaigned on a promise to reduce prison populations, and in particular to reduce the disproportionate incarceration of Māori.

“Our people make up the majority of those in prison and that’s gotta stop,” he said after he was appointed minister. 

At the time, Corrections proposed refreshing its Māori strategy; he “challenged it to go one further” and make that strategy its overarching focus. “What we have done for however many decades hasn’t worked – so we can’t keep defending the status quo.”

Labour’s Kelvin Davis campaigned against mismanagement or prisons and abuse of inmates; now the rubber hits the road, he says. Photo: Getty Images

So why – despite the Government’s repeated and explicit commitments to reduce the criminalisation and incarceration of Māori – is the problem worsening?

The Hōkai Rangi strategy – by Māori, for Māori – is now three years old; it aims to lower the proportion of Māori in prisons to a level matching their share of the general population. Davis now argues it has become firmly embedded in most parts of the organisation.

Yet the proportion of inmates who are Māori has slowly but surely increased from a worrying 50 percent in March 2018, to an even more alarming 53.4 percent at the end of the June fiscal year. That had dipped slightly to 52.9 percent yesterday, but a spokesperson acknowledged daily fluctuations.

"You could say this is where the rubber hits the road," Davis admits. "We’ve had pilots happening across the country and seen good progress, now it is time to ramp that up. It is true that Māori are still over-represented and I want that number to start coming down.”

He points out that the overall prison population has dropped almost 25 percent from when the Government came to power and "inherited a system bursting at the seams".

"There are now 1200 fewer Māori in prison,” he says, “while the Māori imprisonment rate has gone from 657 per 100,000 in 2018 to 457 per 100,000 today."

Justice Minister Kiritapu Allan also highlighted the overall decline in New Zealanders convicted and sentenced, but acknowledged there were disparities within that. "We all know prevention is better than a cure," she tells Newsroom.

"Our government has been very clear that that is where we're focusing a lot of our time and our energy around making sure that we've got proper rehabilitation preventative programmes up and down the country. You've seen us make announcements about where those programs are landing and how we're supporting and funding those. And indeed, I think that we are starting to see some real results on the ground."

At JustSpeak, executive director Aphiphany Forward-Taua says the problems are fundamentally systemic – a manifestation of institutional racism experienced by Māori over generations.

But there are easy wins – she suggests reforming the bail rules, so the onus is no longer on the accused to prove they have safe and stable accommodation as an alternative to prison.

"We've got 2847 men who are remand in custody at the moment, and we've got 211 women," she tells Newsroom. "Think about how difficult it will be for those people, when they are remanded in custody, to prove that they can be trusted in society, and that they have adequate housing. That's a really difficult thing to do when there's a housing crisis.

"That's the sort of difficulty faced between the criminal justice system, the court system, and what's happening in our society and the lack of support for those who are falling between them.

"Looking at the housing crisis, looking at the wait lists for social housing or emergency housing, that is Māori who are again the majority."

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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