The following analysis of New Zealand’s record high prison population was written by Roger Brooking for an assignment submitted in Criminology 303: Prisons in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2017. It has been updated to include current prison numbers. This course is taught by Liam Martin, the criminology lecturer at VUW who, in February 2018, wrote an Open Letter to Government, endorsed by 32 academics, calling for a halt to the building of any further prisons in New Zealand.
In 1985, there were 2,775 prisoners in New Zealand and the rate of imprisonment was 85 people per 100,000 population (World Prison Brief, 2017). It has now reached an all time high of 10,695 – an increase of 385% in just over 30 years. Over 50% of that total are Maori, even though Maori make up only 15% of the population (‘New prisoners more likely to be Maori’, 2017).
By way of explanation, Kylee Quince (2007) states that Maori are seven times more likely to be given a custodial sentence than pakeha and eleven times as many Maori are remanded in custody awaiting trial (Workman & McIntosh, 2013). Jarrod Gilbert (2016) notes that if Maori were incarcerated at the same rate as non-Maori, there would only be 4,900 Kiwis in prison. Any attempt to explain New Zealand’s high prison population must therefore begin with an analysis of why Maori are so over-represented in offending statistics.
Any attempt to explain New Zealand’s high prison population must begin with an analysis of why Maori are so over-represented in offending statistics.
New Zealand’s colonial past is populated with political, social and economic policies which subjugated and penalised Maori. Moana Jackson (1988) argues that such policies have “led to specific acts of institutional racism and social policy that have denied Maori people the economic and emotional resources to retain and transmit their cultural values”.
Patrick O’Malley (1973) points out that almost all indigenous peoples of colonised territories have been forced on to the bottom rungs of the dominant social and economic systems.
Almost all indigenous peoples of colonised territories have been forced on to the bottom rungs of the dominant social and economic systems.
In addition to marginalising Maori economically and socially, Jackson argues that biases in the justice system mean Maori are also more likely to be prosecuted than European offenders, more likely to be held on remand, and then more likely to be sent to prison. O’Malley adds that Maori defendants are less likely to have legal representation, more likely to plead guilty and ascribes all of this to “the formation of unfavourable stereotypes of Maoris in the minds of adjudicating officials” (p.49).
In a study analysing imprisonment rates of repeat drink drivers, Goodall and Durrant (2013) found that unfavourable stereotypes among judges are particularly prevalent in the provinces where judges are more isolated from their colleagues. The authors argue that local area judges form “personal constructs about offenders” which vary from one region to another and that this has led to “systematically different approaches” to sentencing (pp. 20-21).
Maori are more likely to be prosecuted than European offenders, more likely to be held on remand, and then more likely to be sent to prison.
Confirming the systemic nature of the problem, the Waitangi Tribunal (2017) recently declared the high number of Maori in prison constitutes an on-going breach of the Crown’s obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. This brief introduction to institutional racism goes some way to explaining why over 50% of prisoners in New Zealand are Maori.
The introduction of neoliberalism to New Zealand
However, things were not quite so bad prior to 1984. Up to that point in our history, New Zealand’s economic policies could have been described as ‘social democratic’ with a strong focus on full employment, equal opportunities for everyone (except perhaps for women and Maori) and a supportive welfare state.
In 1984, neoliberalism found fertile soil in New Zealand under Labour’s Finance Minister, Roger Douglas. It became known as Rogernomics.
But in the latter half of the 20th century, the world was increasingly interconnected. Aided by the Internet, information and ideas rapidly rippled round the world – including the propagation of nascent political ideologies. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in Britain. In 1981 Ronald Reagan was elected president in America. Both implemented neoliberal, trickle-down economic policies which led to the deregulation of financial and labour markets, and in Britain, the privatisation of state-owned companies.
In 1984, these feral ideas found fertile soil in New Zealand under Labour’s Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, and became known as Rogernomics. State assets were sold off, subsidies to industry and agriculture were removed, welfare payments were cut and New Zealand’s long-standing commitment to full employment was abandoned. The result was that over the next 30 years, the gap between the rich and the poor grew at an alarming rate, and the compassionate egalitarian society we once perceived ourselves to be, began to dissolve.
The gap between the rich and the poor grew at an alarming rate, and the compassionate egalitarian society we once perceived ourselves to be, began to dissolve.
Another consequence of these policies identified by Cavadino and Dignan is that different capitalist democracies produce different levels of punitiveness. The authors describe four different kinds of political economy in Western democracies: neoliberal, conservative corporatist, social democratic and oriental corporatist.
Countries with corporatist or social democratic approaches to government tend to be inclusive. Citizens in these countries are more inclined to see themselves as their ‘brother’s keepers’ and have ‘welfare state’ programmes where those at the margins of society are supported rather than penalised. Countries with neoliberal economic policies tend to be less inclusive and all have higher rates of imprisonment than the other three types of political economy.
Countries with neoliberal economic policies tend to be less inclusive and all have higher rates of imprisonment than the other three types of political economy.
Cavadino and Dignan suggest this is because: “the individualism and inequality of neoliberal societies could reduce social cohesion, excluding and marginalising many individuals (and indeed large groups), engendering anomie and alienation… “(p. 447). Max Rashbrooke (2013) simply says this happens because the income gap causes people to “lose their sense of what life is like for people in the other half” (‘New Zealand one of the worst’, 2015).
Describing how this impacts on the penal system, Cavadino and Dignan write: “The neoliberal society tends to exclude both those who fail on the economic marketplace and those who fail to abide by the law – in the latter case by means of imprisonment…” (p. 448). The authors also cite empirical research which suggests that “as a general rule, economic inequality is (also) related to penal severity: the greater the inequality in society the higher the overall level of punishment” (p. 451).
Since neoliberal policies were introduced, New Zealand has moved from being a fairly egalitarian society to one with much greater economic disparity. The media now frequently report on the unaffordability of housing, increased levels of homelessness and growing childhood poverty. Since Maori were already at the bottom of the heap and, historically, have been ‘unfavourably stereotyped’ in the Justice system, the impact of neoliberal economic policies in New Zealand has been to marginalise them even further.
New Zealand is ‘incredibly harsh on people’ at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder… Those treated the harshest are Maori.
Describing this process, Quince (2017) argues that New Zealand is ‘incredibly harsh on people’ at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. She points out that: “About half of people in prison in New Zealand are there for property and drug offending. Very few Western nations send people to prison for those types of offences” (‘Prisoners more likely to be Maori’, 2017). One provincial judge even incarcerates people for tagging. (‘Tag and go to jail,’ 2008).
Those treated the harshest are Maori, and the record numbers in prison are a clear indication that Maori are the largest group who have ‘failed in the marketplace’. However, there is little doubt that many Maori felt marginalised and excluded long before the introduction of neoliberal economic policies.
The relationship between neoliberalism and our high rate of imprisonment
It is one thing to suggest that neoliberal economic policies lead to a process of exclusion and marginalisation of certain groups. It is another matter altogether to show how this leads to more punitive penal policy and why New Zealand now has record levels of imprisonment.
Professor John Pratt puts the exploding prison population down to ‘penal populism’.
John Pratt (2006) puts the exploding prison population down to ‘penal populism’. He says the social and economic changes introduced in the 1980s created a sense of existential angst. Job security disappeared, finance companies collapsed, inflation went up, and participation in well-established institutions such as marriage, churches and trade unions declined.
The rising crime rate (prior to 1990) also contributed to these anxieties. Pratt believes there was a perception that governments were no longer in control (of crime in particular), and that politicians and political processes no longer responded to the needs of ‘ordinary people’.
There was a perception that governments were no longer in control (of crime in particular), and that politicians and political processes no longer responded to the needs of ‘ordinary people’.
In 1996, this dissatisfaction with the political process led to the abolition of ‘first past the post’ and the introduction of MMP. This facilitated the rise of limited-purpose political parties such as the Act party which, under Rodney Hide, focused primarily on law and order. In 2010, a member of that party, David Garrett, was responsible for the introduction of a modified version of America’s ‘three strikes’ laws in New Zealand. This adds to the prison population by reducing the availability of parole.
In the latter half of the 20th century there were also significant changes in the structure of the media. TVNZ was told to make a profit which meant public service television virtually disappeared; more and more cop shows combined with news headlines about scandals and violent crime polled well with the public and exacerbated individual insecurities. The advent of the internet and talkback radio enabled ordinary citizens to have access to social media and to the airways.
Emotion rather than reason became a legitimate and significant portion of the political narrative.
Emotion rather than reason became a legitimate and significant portion of the political narrative. The mainstream parties, with a strong focus on re-election, felt the need to listen and respond. At each election, National and Labour tried to outbid each other in their attempts to be ‘tough on crime’. In response, tough on crime laws were passed and between 1985 and 1999 the prison population doubled (“High price of New Zealand’s overcrowded prisons,” 2004). In the process, Governments stopped listening to what academics and judicial experts had to say about the ineffectiveness of prison as a deterrent and ignored empirical evidence.
From 2001, the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust played a major role as journalists increasingly turned to Garth McVicar for ‘expert’ explanation.
From 2001, the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust played a major role in this process as journalists increasingly turned to Garth McVicar for expert explanation. As a result, even though crime began dropping in the 1990s, the public were led to believe the opposite; what the public apparently wanted was to ‘lock criminals up and throw away the key’. Because of the extraordinary exposure McVicar was granted by the media, ‘law and order’ became the dominant discussion of the decade.
‘Law and order’ became the dominant discussion of the decade.
Having effectively abandoned social democratic economic principles under Roger Douglas, between 2000 and 2008 the Labour Government moved further down this path by building four new prisons. Justice Minister, Phil Goff justified this by saying: “its money ideally we’d much rather spend on areas like health and education. However, in the short term tougher sentencing is necessary to deal with serious recidivist offenders and to keep the community safe” (Government media statement, 2004, March 9).
The National Party also played its part in the process. In 2000, private prisons – another profit-focussed, neoliberal creation – were introduced to New Zealand. In 2011, Judith Collins was appointed Minister of Justice.
In response to the murder of 18-year-old Christie Marceau who was stabbed to death by a young man on remand (for a previous assault on Ms Marceau), Garth McVicar began yet another law and order campaign. Ms Collins was listening and National passed the Bail Amendment Act in 2013 making it substantially harder for offenders awaiting trial to get bail.
In 2015, the prison population hit 9,000 for the first time. In an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, Judith Collins attempted to explain the growing prison population by blaming it on an increase in violent offenders. But even she had to acknowledge that most of the increase in the prison population over the previous 12 months was due to the growing number of inmates on remand.
Highlighting the issue, in 2006 prisoners on remand made up 18% of all prisoners. By 2016, this figure had jumped to 26%. In her explanation, Ms Collins omitted to mention that the vast majority of these remand prisoners are Maori. In fact, she made no mention of the over-representation of Maori in prison at all. Nor did she mention poverty as a contributing factor in the prison population.
As at March 2018, there were over 10,600 New Zealanders in prison, over 50% of them Maori. It is not possible to explain New Zealand’s record high rate of imprisonment in the last 30 years without reference to New Zealand’s colonial past. There is no doubt that this process pushed Maori to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The introduction of neoliberal policies in the 1980s increased economic disparity pushing Maori (and everyone else near the bottom rung) down even further. For the homeless, it pushed them off the ladder altogether – often into prison.
‘Criminals’ have become an easy target, scapegoated by politicians for practically every problem in society.
The personal and social insecurities stemming from these structural changes were then exploited by Hawke’s Bay farmer, Garth McVicar. By the selective highlighting of violent crimes where the perpetrators were rarely European, the Sensible Sentencing Trust, with the willing help of the media, has been able to unite the National and Labour Parties in a seemingly endless competition to be tough on crime. ‘Criminals’ have become an easy target, scapegoated by politicians for practically every problem in society. In this punitive environment, passing tough on crime laws is easy. No wonder our prison population is at an all-time high.
Cavadino, M. & Dignan, J. (2006). Penal policy and political economy, Criminology &
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Quince, K. (2007). Maori and the criminal justice system in New Zealand in Julia Tolmie & Warren Brookbanks (eds.), Criminal Justice in New Zealand (LexisNexis, Auckland, 2007) 333
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Goff, P. (2004, March 9). New Zealand Government media statement: Tougher laws driving up prison population. Scoop website.
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Protest as prison population hits 10,000. (11 February, 2017). Radio New Zealand.
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