Guest Post: Maori prisons (and Maori offending) revisited

A guest post by :

A few  weeks ago I had a piece on proposed  Maori prisons published here.  I came down firmly against the idea, and opined that they would be “dismal failures”, just like the Maori Focus Units (now renamed Te Tirohanga units) that exist now within some prisons.  My view was based mostly  on “unofficial” sources of information within the prison system.  In short, I had been misinformed. I ought to have waited for answers to my OIA request on the subject, mea culpa. I have now obtained those answers, and changed my view somewhat accordingly.

I asked the Department of Corrections first, “What percentage of inmates who had spent time in Maori Focus Units reoffend within five years of release?” The answer is 64.8%, which is about 10% lower  than the reoffending figures for those who had NOT spent time in a Maori focus unit (73.4% of the general population  reoffended within five years).  The Department does warn that “the figures are not comparable, as the two groups are not matched by risk factors”.

I take that to mean that the group chosen to spend time in an MFU are more motivated to change their behaviour as compared to the inmate population as a whole, which would tend to lead to a better result for the first group as compared with “the rest”. I also asked what percentage of prisoners went to Maori focus units in the first place, and what percentage of the prison  operating budget was devoted to them. Again, something of a surprise.

As at 30 April 2017, 3.9% of the prison muster were housed in a TTU (Te Tirohanga Unit) while only 1.4% of the total prisons budget is devoted to them.  So, notwithstanding the positive skew of the results arising from the population of the TTU’s being more motivated to rehabilitate themselves, after five years there is a significant difference in reoffending rates for those who have spent time in a TTU as compared with those who haven’t, and just as importantly, these units cost less to run than one would logically expect.

So far so good. It would appear then that TTU’s are working quite well – if not being the magic bullet which cures Maori reoffending – and therefore an entire prison run as a TTU would be warmly welcomed by Maori working in this area. Not so.

A week or so ago I was the token whitey – and token right winger – on what was billed as a “panel discussion” on Maori TV regarding Maori prisons. I envisaged a balanced debate, but found I was outnumbered four to one – but I digress; I’m a big boy. In addition to me, the panel consisted of a young Maori lawyer who is active within Kim Workman’s outfit “Rethinking Crime and punishment”, a Maori law lecturer from AUT, and two former prison inmates. Very much to my surprise, the consensus – the academic dissenting – was that Maori prisons were anathema; a “colonization construct”, and that a “Maori prison” was an oxymoron. Maori offenders ought to instead be dealt with in some unspecified “Maori way” – quite what that “way” was to consist of was not made clear.

At one point I asked the young lawyer, one Julia Whaipooti,  where, if not jail, the animals who bashed and kicked and stomped young Moko Rangitoheriri to death should go. The “answer” seemed to go on for some minutes, but at the end I was none the wiser. I think it was something about not generalizing from specifics.

So, although the TTU’s – and by extension a prison run on Maori lines – show some significant degree of success, many Maori are opposed to this concept. Our TV panel then discussed what were the real causes of the high rate of Maori offending and imprisonment. There was considerable consensus:  all agreed it  arises in the home environment – with of course the usual suspects of colonization and a lack of understanding of the Maori way being thrown in. Unsurprisingly, none of the Maori members of the panel were prepared to say exactly why Maori homes seem to produce a disproportionate number of criminal offenders.

Last week was a rich one for information. In addition to the OIA, I  obtained some research which pretty clearly shows what we all instinctively know: Maori criminal offending is closely correlated, and in my view  largely caused by, the destruction of the typical  Maori family such as the one  I wrote about in my earlier piece, our  next door neighbours, the Tuhakas. For those who didn’t read that  piece, Kumi Tuhaka was a roadman for the old Ministry of Works. His wife – like every other woman at that time – was a full time  stay at  home Mum. They had two daughters, who were our childhood playmates, and are both now university educated professionals. Except for having only two children, the Tuhakas were a typical Maori family in the 60’s and early 70’s. There were several families just like them in the state housing block I grew up in.

Today, things are very different.  I would guess the “typical Maori family” now is a solo mum in her 20’s, with several children to different fathers. Males will come and go in the home; none will be committed, and even fewer will marry the mother. The stats would seem to support that view.

While none of us can  for sure what the “typical Maori family” of  2017 is, consider these facts: in 1968 72% of Maori  births were to married couples –  by 2015, that figure had fallen to 21%; according to the last census, 84% of one parent families were headed by the mother; Maori teenage births are almost twice that of paheka teenage births (58/1000 per year vs. 30/1000/pa); 42% of children under 15  live with a Maori mother and no father, compared with 22% of pakeha children under 15 (2010 figures). And whether we like it or not, the correlation between one parent families – of whatever race – and later problems for the children is unarguable.

But don’t take my word for it; here is President Obama in a 2008 Fathers Day speech:

“We know the statistics – that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and twenty times more likely to end up in prison…”

So, is there any magic in actually being married? Isn’t a stable two parent household –whether mum and dad or mum and mum – just as good? Sadly no, much as many of us would wish that is the case. According to the Christchurch child development study, unmarried cohabitation is the biggest risk factor for breakdown of the child’s family in his or her first five years: 49.9% of de facto couples separate in that period, vs. 10.9% of married couples. There is a close correlation between declining formal marriage and notifications to CYFS – as marriage rates declined, so notifications to CYFS increased.

What does this all tell us, and what can we do about what is unarguably a very depressing picture? Well, first face facts.  I would say the following are pretty well unarguable:

  1. A child who grows up in a one parent family is much more likely to have poor life outcomes, and to become a criminal, than those in a traditional two parent family;
  2. In New Zealand, such children are very much more likely to be Maori than pakeha or Asian;
  3. De facto couples are much more likely to split in the first five years of a child’s life than married couples;
  4. The rate of traditional marriage has declined hugely since the 1960’s;
  5. There is a clear correlation – if not a proven causal relationship – between declining marriage rates and young people becoming offenders;
  6. The decline in marriage rates is considerably greater among Maori parents as compared to the population as a whole.

So what can we do to change this? Much as religious zealots would like to believe otherwise, marriage rates have fallen and de facto unions have increased, and nothing much will change that. The state is not about to provide incentives for people to marry as they once did – married tax rates used to be much lower than single tax rates.

We can however stop incentivizing young women to produce children into one parent or highly unstable two parent homes. The National-ACT government has taken some very tentative steps in this regard, removing the benefit incentives gained by endlessly reproducing. That move should continue, and become more firm.

We can stop teaching kids that ANY kind of family is as good as another: the facts simply do not fit that conclusion. It is very clear that a two parent family, preferably where the parents are married, produces better outcomes for the children than any other version of family. In short we can and should give our children the facts, and not obfuscate and hide the reality, unwelcome as the reality may be, and whether or not it is contrary to what ones ideological beliefs are.

In the meantime, and consistent with my view that the facts ought to govern what we do, by all means let’s try a prison run on the same lines as the present Te Tirohanga units. While the impact on reoffending may be small, ANY reduction in recidivism is welcome. Even if we changed our way of living tomorrow to reflect what we know about single parent families and criminal offending, it would take a generation for change to be reflected in offender numbers.

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