Racism Apparent in Our Legal System

My previous post was a response to the strong financial incentive for legal aid to gain guilty pleas from their clients. We know from statistics that a large proportion of those using legal aid will be poor and Maori. Maori make up 15% of our population but constitute 50% of all male prisoners and 60% of female prisoners. One could say that this is purely because Maori offend more than the rest of society and "if they do the crime, they should do the time", however the evidence says otherwise.

I have become increasingly aware that when it comes to policing, and our legal system, there is not a level playing field for all of our citizens. I have been appalled at the treatment Maori/Pacifika friends of mine have experienced from the police and the way their law abiding children have been harassed. If you are young, brown and out and about at night, if you haven't committed a crime then you are about to. A 1998 survey of how Maori perceived the police revealed a high level of mistrust and feelings of victimisation. Women and transgender Maori especially reported concerning levels of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the police and few complained because it was felt that the whole system was corrupt, so there was no point.

Fourteen years have passed since the report but it takes some time to change a culture and the heavy handed response from the police in the Urewera "terror" raids in 2007 was further proof of the disregard of basic human rights where Maori are concerned. An entire Maori community found themselves under siege from armed police, their houses broken into, school buses stopped and innocent children traumatized. A 2011 report on police culture found "decisive change" was still needed.

Once Maori are charged by the police they then face our court system and judiciary and the victimization continues. In the 2011 Ministry of Justice report on "Trends in Convictions and Sentencing" it was noted that drink driving made up a large proportion of offenses:

"Drink driving makes up over half of the offences in the traffic and vehicle regulatory offences category, and is the most common offence for which people appear in court. Over 30,000 drink driving charges were laid in 2011 (11 percent of all charges laid in court). Drink driving has consistently been the most common charge laid in court over the past ten years, and is strongly influenced by the number of breath tests conducted by police."

Young Maori men again produce a disproportionately high level of convictions for drink driving, but it is not a truly accurate reflection of those caught offending. If you are charged with drink driving and are pakeha and academically able there is a good chance that you will escape conviction. In today's Southland Times it was reported that a 20 year old trainee pilot was not convicted for driving with a breath alcohol limit of 778mcg because it would delay his ability to gain his commercial licence. A couple of weeks earlier a fourth year law student also escaped conviction because, although his level of intoxication was high, a conviction "could be a barrier to his career and professional development". There was an assumption by both judges that a similar conviction for young Maori men would not have as much of an impact on their lives and therefore a damning and racist judgment on their potential to contribute to society.

Rethink Crime and Punishment is a strategic project focussed on creating public debate and looking at alternatives to managing crime. They have developed some researched based principles that deserve to be noticed:

  1. Criminal sanctions are important, but by themselves they are inadequate. Public safety requires social and economic justice and a range of political interventions to suit.
  2. Crime cannot be managed by the State alone. There must be community sanctions and engagement.
  3. Criminal justice interventions should be proportional, and based on evidence of that necessary to achieve inclusion, reparation and deterrence.
  4. Criminal justice policy and practice should achieve minimum resort to custody and other restraints on liberty while giving due regard to public safety.
  5. Criminal justice policy should address the crimes of the powerful (both individual and corporate) and the impact of corporate crime on the community, as well as those crimes associated with the least powerful sections of society.
  6. Criminal justice policy should be consistent with international, human rights norms.
  7. Criminal justice policy requires a broader appreciation of who are victims, and should treat victims, offenders, suspects and witnesses with dignity and respect.


Dylan VS said…
Great blog as always. Great that you gave examples to back your point of view up with regard to seletive convitions for those with more to loose.

Agree entirely that we need to take more responcibility as a society for our failings.

Thanks for the blog.
bsprout said…
Thanks, Dylan. :-)
Towack said…
Its an easy comment to say really, that the 'community' should take responsibility, but please, who is the community and what are they meant to do.....
bsprout said…
Towack, you need to read Celia Lashlie. As an ex prison officer and social worker she has worked with some of our worst criminals and has formed some ideas around how we can turn peoples lives around.

If a young struggling single mother moves into the house next door what can we do to help manage her wild young children? What can teachers to to help children from challenging home backgrounds? How can employers give young criminals a second chance?

Celia talks about young people who have made some huge mistakes and lost self respect and hope and yet the actions of just one person can make a difference and turn things around for them. Neighbours, teachers, colleagues, bosses are "community".

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