"Grossly disproportionate" and "devastating" for New Zealand. That is the verdict of the Waitangi Tribunal, which has found the Department of Corrections has failed Māori by not doing enough to reduce the high rates of Māori reoffending.
The tribunal released a report this afternoon, 'Tū Mai Te Rangi!', which calls for urgent action from Corrections to reduce the number of Māori who are returning to prison again and again.
Within two years of being released from jail, 41.3 percent of Māori prisoners were back behind bars compared with 30.5 percent of non-Māori, the report found, and the disparity between Māori and non-Māori reoffending rates was widening.
The tribunal said having no specific plan to reduce Māori reoffending was a breach of the department's Treaty of Waitangi obligations to protect Māori interests and to treat Māori equitably.
Former senior probation officer Tom Hemopo, who filed the claim after 30 years working for the department, said he was happy with the decision.
"I am more happy for our people," he said.
"Maybe there is a glimmer of hope now that things will actually happen and the system will get better."
Māori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand's population but account for more than half its prisoners.
The tribunal said the overrepresentation of Māori behind bars was affecting 10,000 Māori children and had gone on for so long it now seemed normal.
Mr Hemopo said he hoped the report would drive actual change and not lead to more "flowery words" from Corrections about its efforts for Māori.
"There is no way out of this. They have got to do it now.
"They are coming under everyone's attention and the heat is going to be turned up."
As part of its recommendations, the tribunal urged Corrections to create a new Māori strategy immediately, and give more power to its Māori Advisory Board.
In addition to specific targets, it called for a budget dedicated to achieving them and more treaty awareness training for senior staff.
'Open to any ideas'
Corrections chief executive Ray Smith welcomed the report and its findings and said it was fair and practical.
"This issue of Māori overrepresentation in prison has existed for decades and I think we have all struggled to work out just how to reverse that situation," he said.
"I am open to any ideas that can make a difference. I don't feel in the slightest defensive about this."
But Mr Smith denied that the department was not already focused on Māori.
"I do not think it is as stark as that," he said.
"There is a plan of response to Māori reoffending but it is not as in depth as it should be."
Mr Smith said Corrections offered a range of programmes budgeted for including a whole Māori services team, which he said many government organisations did not have.
"We will resource initiatives where we need to and you will see the emergence of a much stronger plan."
Since the tribunal inquiry, a new target has been set to reduce Māori reoffending by 25 percent.
"What is really challenging is the density of Māori people in prison that are in gangs."
Gang membership a factor
Corrections data showed gang members made up 30 percent of the prison population, but Māori made up 70 percent of those members.
It also showed that gang members reoffended at nearly twice the rate of non-gang members.
"Sadly what I see is much of the terrific work that goes in to help change people's lives gets undone on exit from prison."
Mr Smith said he needed to get more help from iwi and Māori to deal with that transition back into society.
Victoria University Institute of Criminology research associate and prison reform advocate Kim Workman welcomed the report.
The former head of prisons said Corrections had probably put Māori issues in the "too hard" basket.
"They have tended to invisibilise Māori issues," Mr Workman said.
He said no briefings to incoming ministers since 2008 made any mention of Māori or the need to reduce overrepresentation in prison.
Mr Workman said the report was quite conservative and had very practical and reasoned recommendations.
The Waitangi Tribunal is also recommending a law change to the Corrections Act 2004 to include the Crown's treaty obligations to Māori.