Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Maori and Criminal Offending: A Critical Appraisal

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Maori and Criminal Offending: A Critical Appraisal

Article excerpt

Since the advent of the Maori renaissance in New Zealand and the shift toward the sociopolitical ideology of biculturalism, the disproportionate representation of Maori in prisons has increased. Criminal justice sector policy asserts that this overrepresentation is best understood as the outcome of Maori experiencing impairments to cultural identity resulting from colonisation. Central to this claim is the notion that ethnicity is a reliable construct by which distinctions can be made between offenders regarding what factors precipitate their offending, as well as best practices for their rehabilitation. Despite the absence of empirical support, this claim has been transformed from a conjectural claim to a veridical fact resulting in what is termed here 'the wishing well approach'. An alternative perspective is recommended to improve current efforts to address the issue of Maori being overrepresented in New Zealand's criminal justice sector.

Keywords: Maori, criminal offending, ethnicity, identity

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The issue of Maori being overrepresented in New Zealand's criminal justice sector continues to raise considerable debate. A range of explanatory theories to account for the asymmetry in criminal offending rates between Maori and non-Maori has been proposed. Ausubel (1960) for example, suggested that Maori adolescents were prevented from assimilating into mainstream culture by their elders. The outcome of this 'generation gap', as Ausubel described it, was increasing rates of juvenile delinquency and crime involving Maori youth. O'Malley (1973) in contrast, contended that the move by Maori from a rural to urban environment heightened the risk of criminal offending by Maori. Others have directed attention toward deeper structural causes such as: the organised settlement of New Zealand disrupting Maori tribal society (Jackson, 1987, 1988); monocultural public and social policies (Maxwell & Morris, 1999; Morris et al., 2003; Pratt, 1992; Te Puni Kokiri, 2000; Williams, 2001); justice system bias (Department of Corrections, 2007) and the role poverty might play in contributing to ethnic differences in offending rates (Fergusson et al., 1975). In their assessment of theories of indigenous violence, Snowball and Weatherbum (2008) outline a number of theoretical frameworks that have been used to explain the discrepant rates of offending by ethnic groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. It is the endorsement of one populist explanation for offending rates of Maori by the Department of Corrections in New Zealand that this article is principally concerned.

In this article it is contended that the Department of Corrections has adopted a specific theory about the causes of criminal offending by Maori. A major assumption of this theory is that the contemporary overrepresentation of Maori in offending, incarceration, and recidivism rates is best understood as the outcome of Maori experiencing impairments to cultural identity resulting from colonisation. Central to this theory, therefore, is also the assumption that ethnicity is a reliable construct by which distinctions can be made between offenders regarding what factors precipitated their offending, as well as best practices for their rehabilitation. Considering a thwarted cultural identity is believed to have given rise to the higher proportion of offenders who are Maori, rehabilitation efforts largely pivot on the idea that restoring cultural identity will lead to a subsequent reduction of the number of Maori in prison. (1) In the absence of empirical evidence, these assumptions form the theoretical foundation of current intervention programs targeting offenders who are Maori. Important to note is that although these assumptions have been in circulation for some time, their adoption and implementation has not led to any demonstrable reduction in Maori rates of offending. It is for this reason that I coin the term 'the wishing well approach' to describe the Department of Correction's ongoing commitment to a theory about Maori offending, which is not based on empirical evidence and has not produced the desired effect of reducing current rates of offending by Maori. …

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