POLITICS WEEK: Māori Incarceration Rates and Māori-Only Prisons?

BY ALEX SIMS

Māori currently make up 51 percent of our prison population, however only 14.6 percent of the population in New Zealand are Māori.[1] With this year’s election fast approaching, it is an important time for us to consider why New Zealand’s Māori prison population is at an all-time high. Māori currently make up a higher percentage of all incoming prisoners than at any time in recorded history.[2] Drug offences and traffic offending figures are four times higher for Māori than for Pākehā, a figure that remained unchanged from 1991 to 2007.[3] Ministry of Justice figures released in March 2017 show that 56.3 percent of those imprisoned in 2016 were Māori.

So what is the source of such a high rate of Māori convictions? New Zealand Drug Foundation Principal Adviser Gilbert Taurua believes a high rate of Māori being convicted of minor drug-related offences is at the core of the problem, as approximately 40 percent of those currently in New Zealand’s prisons have been convicted of minor drug-related offences.[4] Taurua believes the way we currently approach drugs through the law is not working for Māori.[5] Convicting Māori for minor offences largely impacts their access to rehabilitative treatments and affects their long term prospects for employment. Statistics also show that Māori are much more likely to be searched, arrested and convicted by police for minor drug-related offences than anyone else in New Zealand.[6]

Too many convictions?

Another issue highlighted by Auckland University of Technology law lecturer Khylee Quince is that New Zealand courts are “incredibly punitive”.[7] Quince believes New Zealand needs to take a different approach and reduce the high quantity of people being imprisoned.[8] New Zealanders convicted in 2016 were 40 percent more likely to be imprisoned than those sentenced in 2009 and minor drug convictions seem to be at the core of these convictions.[9] Many New Zealanders are concerned about the impact of decriminalising or legalising the use of cannabis, yet the prohibition of cannabis has been our approach for over 40 years with scarcely any change in use rates.[10] Many believe it is time for a new approach to tackling drug issues, by going to the core and looking at the societal issues and reason behind rates of drug use in New Zealand.

The Misuse of Drugs Act came into law in 1975 with the aim of creating a ‘drug-free’ New Zealand.[11] Yet nearly 40 years on, between 2007 and 2011, there were almost 13,000 minor drug-related convictions and $59 million spent on imprisoning people for minor drug offences.[12]

Recent law changes around substance safety, to deal with synthetic psychoactive drugs (legal highs), has not reduced the use of synthetic drugs and has instead caused the industry to go underground.[13] Synthetic cannabis is much stronger than organic cannabis and its use has been linked to seven users’ deaths in Auckland in July 2017. Synthetic cannabis is an illegal substance in New Zealand, yet its use is prevalent, raising the question – are we really dealing with the core of the problem?[14]

A Health-based Approach

The Drug Foundation believes we should be viewing this as a health issue rather than a criminal justice based issue.[15] Drug Foundation Director, Ross Bell, believes New Zealand’s current drug laws are ineffective and out-dated as they were drafted over 40 years ago.[16] Bell argues that we should be approaching drugs as a health problem, and focus on reforming our current drug laws by investing in treatment and rehabilitation options. This approach would assist in reducing the number of Māori being imprisoned every year for minor drug offences.[17] The Drug Foundation supports the 2011 Law Commissions finding that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 should be replaced by a cautioning and rehabilitation focused regime.[18] Associate Health minister and United Future leader Peter Dunne also promotes a health approach to drug related issues, stating that the war on drugs has been a failure.[19] Dunne commented that the Government is reviewing the Misuse of Drugs Act, particularly focusing on the offences and penalties that are enforced.[20]

Drug advocate Tuari Potiki believes we need a system that allows Māori youth to progress through adolescence without risking a conviction that will impact them for the rest of their lives.[21] Potiki also believes that drugs must be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. Claire Aitken, programme director at Moana House, believes that the majority of those who use drugs have underlying health and mental health issues that need to be addressed.[22] Aitken also believes these health issues are closely linked to poverty and social dislocation, making drugs part of a much larger issue.

Small-scale Change

However, there are many advocates implementing change on a smaller scale. A hui organised by the Drug Foundation was held in May this year to discuss the drug culture in the Hawke’s Bay, particularly looking at the way our current drug laws impact the Māori community.[23] Denis O’Reilly, manager of Mokai Whanau Ora (a national programme run through the Ministry of Health) also believes a community-based health approach is needed rather than strict enforcement by the police and corrections.[24]

Quince believes that tikanga Māori must be at the centre of the drug reform process in New Zealand.[25] Quince is an advocate for the legalisation of cannabis, with a strongly regulated market, in order to protect the futures of many young Māori and provide them with the treatment they need.[26] The legalisation of cannabis would protect many young non-problematic users and prevent the long term stigma of having a criminal conviction.

The “Portugal Model”

Bell thinks New Zealand could learn from the Portugal model of dealing with drugs, since they decriminalised drugs 15 years ago. In Portugal, they have moved from a criminal-based response to drugs towards a health-based approach.[27]  Instead of a conviction, people found with drugs are placed in front of a committee of professionals who assess whether a person is a problem drug user or not. Problem drug users receive treatment for addiction, while recreational users are provided with drug education or a fine. As a result of the implementation of a health-based model in Portugal, an increased number of drug users are receiving treatment, and the use of drugs and prison population has decreased.[28] Another example can be found in Australia, where cannabis has not been decriminalised, but most states deal with small amounts of cannabis by issuing a fine.[29]

Upcoming election – what do the parties think?

In order to reduce the high number of Māori in prison, Labour want to create a separate Māori prison, that functions based on core tikanga Māori values and principles.[30] A Māori-centred prison would allow other ethnicities who are aware that the prison would be run using Māori values. Labour believe such a model could reduce reoffending and help Māori reconnect with their whakapapa and core tikanga values.[31]

They key parties who are pro-drug reform include Labour, United Future, the Green Party, ACT, The Māori Party and New Zealand First.[32] The Green Party have a defined policy advocating for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis and restricted personal use.[33] Their policy would implement a legal age for personal use of cannabis and remove punishments for those with terminal or chronic illness. National do not have any pro-reform policies and are opposed to reducing penalties around recreational drug use.[34] United Future advocate for a “Portugal-based” model of a health approach to possession, however keeping the penalties in place for sale and supply.[35]

However, we need a majority vote in Parliament to reform our current drug laws and reduce the number of Māori convicted of minor drug offences that have a lasting impact on their opportunities. With the upcoming election almost here, is it time to start thinking about a new approach to the way we approach drugs in New Zealand?

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.

[1] Tony Wright “Māori Prison Rates at Record Levels” (23 October 2016) Newshub < http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2016/10/maori-prison-rates-at-record-levels.html>.

[2] Jordan Bond “New Prisoners are more likely to be Maori than ever” NZ Herald (online ed, Auckland, 31 March 2017).

[3] Gary Raumati Hook “The potential influence of Legislation on the criminality of Māori and Pacific Islanders in New Zealand” 2009 3 MAI Review 1 at 6.

[4] Oriini Kalpara “Native Affairs – Too high for prison” (4 July 2017) Māori Television < https://www.maoritelevision.com/news/national/native-affairs-too-high-prison>.

[5] “Hui to Tackle Core Drug Problems in Hawke’s Bay” NZ Herald (online ed, Auckland, 2 May 2017).

[6] Hui, above n 5.

[7] Bond, above n 2.

[8] Bond, above n 2.

[9] Bond, above n 2.

[10] Bond, above n 2.

[11] Bruce Munro “Making Peace with Drugs” Otago Daily Times (online ed, Otago, 10 October 2016)

[12] Munro, above n 11.

[13] Munro, above n 11.

[14] Craig Hoyle “Police, Coroner Investigating Multiple Synthetic Cannabis Deaths: ’Further People are going to die’” (21 July 2017) Stuff < https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/94977752/Police-coroner-investigating-multiple-synthetic-cannabis-deaths-further-people-are-going-to-die>.

[15] Munro, above n 11.

[16] NZ Drug Foundation “Drug law reform needed to end Māori over-incarceration” (11 April 2017) Scoop < http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1704/S00120/drug-law-reform-needed-to-end-maori-over-incarceration.htm>.

[17] Hoyle, above n 14.

[18] NZ Drug Foundation, above n 16.

[19] Munro, above n 11.

[20] Munro, above n 11.

[21] Munro, above n 11.

[22] Munro, above n 11.

[23] Hui, above n 5.

[24] Hui, above n 5.

[25] Simon Day “Why cannabis reform needs to be done with Māori, for Māori” (24 July 2017) The Spinoff < https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/24-07-2017/why-cannabis-reform-needs-to-be-done-with-maori-for-maori/>.

[26] Day, above n 25.

[27] Munro, above n 11.

[28] Munro, above n 11.

[29] Munro, above n 11.

[30] Patrick Gower “Labour proposes Māori prison to fix rising numbers” (8 May 2017) Newshub < http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2017/05/labour-proposes-maori-prison-to-fix-rising-numbers.html>.

[31] Gower, above n 30.

[32] John Edens “Where do political parties stand on cannabis law reform?” (5 July 2017) Stuff < http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2017/05/labour-proposes-maori-prison-to-fix-rising-numbers.html>.

[33] Edens, above n 32.

[34] Edens, above n 32.

[35] Edens, above n 32.