The model fourth year medical students came up with to summarise their research

Māori perspectives on the justice system

They’re our whānau — a report in the making

6 min readAug 17, 2018


Four weeks ago, more than 1,000 people answered our call for Māori perspectives on the justice system.

As the group of people most negatively affected (read: locked up) by this system, we wanted to hear from Māori in particular so we can better inform government decision makers.

Here’s what we found:

  • Almost everyone agreed (90%) that structural racism (such as unconscious and conscious racial bias in police, lawyers, judges), colonisation (the forceful taking of land, language and culture from Māori) and intergenerational trauma (trauma that is transferred through generations) are the reasons there are far more Māori than non-Māori locked in our prisons.
  • Almost everyone thought people in prison should have the right to vote.
  • 76% agreed community-based interventions to prevent and reduce crime should be supported and funded instead of prisons, and 70% support a focus on interventions for taiohi (young people).
  • 65% support the 100-bed mental health facility planned for Waikeria, but 63% also said that prisons are not good places to provide mental health services.

This quote from a survey participant summed up the whakaaro (thoughts) on the last point:

“Effective health services are needed outside of prison. While I understand that prison is at times, the only place a person is able to get help, it also highlights the need for services prior.”

When we asked which interventions would be the most effective at preventing and reducing crime, here’s what this community said were the five most important:

  • More connected communities (1102 participants or 83%)
  • Better mental health services (1042 participants or 79%)
  • Better drug, alcohol and addiction support services (1004 participants or 76%)
  • More jobs and higher wages (954 participants or 72%)
  • Better schooling (933 participants or 70%)

In short, we know the solutions to harm are healthy communities and preventative help, not handcuffs and prison.

Under the guidance of Whaea Dr Keri Lawson-Te Aho, we teamed up with Otago University to research this kaupapa (cause) more deeply.

When the medical students working on the project paired their literature review (that is reading lots of existing research and drawing conclusions and connections) with an analysis of our survey responses, and seven interviews with experts, they found four main themes;

The justice system is a tool of colonisation.

Early on in the colonisation process, European settlers instigated policies that forcibly stole Māori identity, language, and whenua (land), and created a foreign system of justice that actively diminished the role of tikanga Māori (Māori values and customs or law) in restoring balance between those who had harmed, and those who had been harmed. Colonisation created a cycle of intergenerational trauma that still affects Māori today. The forceful taking of Māori land resulted in Māori having less resources and wealth than Pākehā and this unfair economic reality pushes more Māori toward acts of survival that get punished.

Institutional racism results in the state locking up more Māori than non-Māori.

The medical students’ research showed that social services, police, and courts hold an active bias against Māori, making decisions that more harshly punish Māori than non-Māori for the same crimes. This structural racism also continues to play a role in the forced removal of Māori children from whānau (families).

The prison system is a failure.

There were no prisons before colonisation, and prison structures do not fit with Te Ao Māori (the Māori world). Rehabilitation of those who have harmed does not occur through imprisonment.

Māori led community initiatives and policy will stop the violence of this system.

By returning rangatiratanga (sovereignty) to Māori, uplifting Māori culture, restoring te reo Māori and incorporating tikanga Māori in policy we can build a justice system that contributes to a fairer, more compassionate, Tiriti-honouring Aotearoa New Zealand.

Māori voices must be at the centre of any justice debate. We need to share this research far and wide.

Will you chip in to help us:

  1. Publish a beautiful and compelling report on Māori views of the justice system;
  2. Build an educational website so we can get this research in front of as many people as possible;
  3. Work with researchers to develop effective messages so that our research shifts the hearts and minds of voters?

Click here to chip in

In terms of who took the survey;

  • 78% were female, 20% male, and 0.75% gender diverse, non-binary, or takatāpui
  • As well as being Māori, 47% also had Pākehā lineage, and 9% Pasifika
  • The majority of participants were aged 40–59 (47%)
  • 93% knew someone who had been to prison, and 62% had a whānau member incarcerated at the time they took the survey.

We know we have more work to do to ensure Māori male voices are heard. But as you can see many iwi were represented with Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou, and Ngāti Kahungunu the most common participants.

A word-cloud with names of the iwi of survey participants sized to represent the number of participants who are part of that iwi. Following the three most common iwi listed above are Tainui, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Rawara, Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi.

Overwhelmingly, when asked questions about justice statistics, this community answered correctly with the exception of one. Over 75% either thought crime rates had been increasing, or didn’t know.

But crime rates have been steadily decreasing in Aotearoa since the 1990s.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this misconception — the last ActionStation justice survey of the general population had similar results.

Public perception that crime rates are increasing can be a catalyst for politicians to throw their weight behind harmful and violent ‘tough on crime’ policy that feeds off fear and further disempowers, hurts, and imprisons Māori.

This urgently needs to change, and we have a plan to do it:

  • We will take your views with us to Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata — the Safe and Effective Justice Summit in Porirua next week. We will urge those in power to put Māori at the forefront of justice debates, and advocate for justice solutions that will work best for Māori.
  • We will organise for the University of Otago medical students to present the full ‘They’re Our Whānau’ report at a public event in Wellington. We will invite the media, policy advisors and politicians.
  • We will review the way media are reporting on crime to find out how these myths are spread. We will use that research to inform best-practice messaging and make sure New Zealanders see accurate stories of our justice system and stop the rhetoric of fear preventing ambitious reform.
  • We will work with JustSpeak to mobilise compassionate New Zealanders to meet with their MPs and discuss the need for Māori-led alternatives to prison. These meetings will tautoko Matua Moana Jackson’s report on Māori and the criminal justice system to be released in November — an update of his 1988 work He Whaipaanga Hou.

This combination of people power will influence journalists and politicians to put justice solutions that work best for Māori first.

Chip in now to help us do it.

Lastly, we acknowledge this research and this topic is packed with mamae (deep hurt, pain) for many of us — for those currently incarcerated, for their (our) whānau, and for generations who have come before us.

We see this pain and we feel it. We will work as hard as we can to amplify the healing, and make sure this hurt is not inflicted on those who come after us.

It must be Māori ideas, solutions, and knowledge leading this process. It must be Māori who determine the pathway forward. Thanks to our community, we can help make this happen.

Together we can and will demand a compassionate, treaty-honouring, empathetic system of justice that works for all of us.

With fierce determination,

Madeleine and Laura, for the team at ActionStation

P.S. Here are two ActionStation/JustSpeak volunteers, Ben and Victor, who we’ve already trained and supported to visit their local MPs — National’s Nicola Willis, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Labour’s Paul Eagle:

Your donations will help us to train and support more people all around the country to visit their MPs and talk about the need for ambitious justice reform. Chip in what you can today.




Community campaigning organisation bringing people together to act in powerful and coordinated ways to create a fair and flourishing Aotearoa for all.