Gilbert on ascribing racism


The disproportionate amount of Maori in our criminal justice system is among the most serious problems facing New Zealand. In my April column I unpacked Maori imprisonment rates and if you read that and weren’t concerned by it then I dare say your moral compass requires recalibration.

In recent times, however, a number of journalists and commentators have placed heavy emphasis on being the root cause of the problem, but on this point I think we need to be much more cautious than most have.

A report by the Independent Police Complaints Authority (IPCA) released two weeks ago was held up as evidence for racism.

The report looked at pre-charge warnings used by police.

Pre-charge warnings are employed when a person has been arrested for a minor offence that requires police intervention but a “public interest” test indicates prosecution is not warranted. It is intended to give some account for the offence by recording the warning as part of a criminal history but it keeps people away from the justice system.

Apart from saving taxpayers a truckload of money, the thinking behind such warnings is that for many people the shock of contact with the police and a formal caution will act as a wake-up that modifies future behaviour.

The IPCA report found that Maori are significantly less likely to get pre charge warnings than non-Maori.

Which has led people to conclude it is racism.

The headlines from that point wrote themselves. It was concluded, quite naturally perhaps, that racism was at play.

But the headline figures didn’t tell the whole story. Far from it, in fact. The IPCA drew on an audit of those given pre charge warnings and that found 51 per cent of non-Maori had no previous convictions but only 26 per cent of Maori enjoyed a clean record. Among a number of disqualifying factors for pre-charge warnings, a person’s form is certainly considered. This was near universally ignored in reporting and commentary around the report, even though the IPCA stated: “The Authority has not come across any evidence that clearly demonstrates differential treatment on the basis of ethnicity.”

I have found not a single reference to that in the media.

The media report has been simplistic.

Just comparing between two ethnic groups is misleading. You need to control for other factors. This is basic science. You need to compare between people with the same criminal records (no previous offending), same type of charges faced, same age etc etc. What you want is to make sure every variable except ethnicity is accounted for, and then you can determine if ethnicity is the issue.

I’ve done a lot of work with criminals and inside prisons, and while Maori are overrepresented, the commonality that is most obvious between Maori and non-Maori offenders is deprivation and disadvantage – the foibles of those terrible pockets of lower socio-economic communities.

And here we unquestionably stand on foundations altogether more solid.

The Ministry of Health found that one in four prisoners reports a mental illness or psychological condition that makes everyday activities or socialising difficult, and one in five has difficulty learning, which is unsurprising given the Department of Corrections has found that 71 per cent of prisoners have difficulty reading and writing.

This data, of course, point to the drivers of crime.

Maori are over represented in communities in which such problems have fertile ground. The unemployment rate for Maori is double that of non-Maori, Maori have the highest rates of binge drinking and smoking and their morbidity data are across the board depressing. Maori die younger and suicide more often. Maori dominate gang numbers and they are also more likely to be the victims of crime. Tackling criminal justice bias, whatever that might be, will not solve these problems.

Exactly. One has to target the drivers of criminal offending.

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