Māori lawyer says it's time to abolish prisons

3:04 pm on 16 November 2017

A Māori lawyer and social justice advocate says it's time to abolish New Zealand prisons and take lessons from how law and order was historically approached by Māori.

Moana Jackson will give an address tonight in Wellington explaining why Māori and other indigenous peoples didn't have prisons prior to colonisation.

A teenage Māori boy looking unhappy

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Mr Jackson said the United Nations and other international human rights bodies have found the operation of prisons in this country to be in breach of human rights.

"The bias and prejudiced way in which various parts of the criminal justice system operates ensures there is a disproportionate number of Māori men and Māori women in prison.

"I think part of that discussion is to look at indigenous nations around the world because there is no indigenous nation in New Zealand, or Australia or Canada or the United States or South America - that have a history of prisons, yet they all have a history of humans causing harm."

Mr Jackson said Māori traditionally dealt with crime differently, with an emphasis on restoring the relationship between the person who caused harm and the person whom harm was inflicted upon.

He said Māori sought to impose sanctions for the wrong and in the long-term, rebuild the relationship that was damaged.

"In the Pākehā system if someone is charged with something the question they're asked in court is do you plead guilty or not guilty?

"There's no word for 'guilty' in the Māori language and so the question asked instead was, 'do you know who you have harmed'? In other words, do you know what the relationship or the potential relationship is that has been damaged?"

Mr Jackson said while other countries were starting to close prisons, New Zealand by contrast was building them - it now had the fastest rate of building prisons per capita in the world.

He said these were appalling facts and our country needed to follow in the footsteps of others abroad.

"The crime rate has actually gone down in Denmark and Norway as they've closed prisons and I just think this country is out of step really with international experience.

"It's certainly unacceptable the way particularly that it incarcerates so many young Māori men and women."

Mr Jackson said there are many lessons New Zealand can take from the past - it's just a matter of looking.

"Perhaps if we were to look at those histories and find out why they went down that path and why Europe went down the path of prisons, we might find a base from which to look at prison abolition and to look at why countries like Norway and so on have decided to get rid of them."

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