The Impact of Race Relations on Criminal Justice

Kim Workman

As Māori society began to disintegrate, the justice system mopped up those who were deemed a public nuisance.  In the 1930’s Māori “lads” were sent off to borstal “in their own interests” because they were judged to have come from bad surroundings – a practice since taken over by youth justice institutions.[1]  In 1902, Māori constituted 2.8 percent of all prisoners received – by 1934 that number had risen to 8.9 percent.[2]  Prison sucked up all types of offenders from the lower strata of society: the small time repeat offenders, drunks, vagrants, the mentally ill, and so on.

By the 1930’s, while New Zealand had very little crime, it had an average prison population three times greater in proportion to the general population, than that of England and Wales.[3]

Prison provided social benefits: it hid our failures from view; it allowed politicians and the courts to maintain public credibility; it satisfied a public demand for retribution. [4]   New Zealand had become a punitive and mean-spirited society. [5]

The impact of the Māori urban migration of the 1950’s was predictable. [6]  Between 1954 and 1958, reported Māori youth offending rose by 50%.[7]  One of the factors that caused this increase related not to how Māori behaved in this strange and new urban world but   how they were treated by non-Māori.  Māori urban migrants were perceived and treated as a potentially dangerous underclass.  We were outsiders.

The Police, like much of the public service in the 1950’s was unapologetically monocultural.   In 1951, the Police boasted one Māori police officer, Bill Carran, who had joined the police in 1920, and retired in 1958, as an Assistant Commissioner.  Carran, of mixed descent, was referred to disparagingly as ‘the Black Tracker’ by his colleagues, and survived by downplaying his Māori heritage, and emphasising his pākehā side. [8]

When Commissioner JB Young canvassed his staff in 1950 about recruiting Māori , he found them ‘almost unanimously opposed’.  The Senior Sergeant at Taihape commented:

The average European would strongly resent being corrected or reprimanded by a Maori, particularly in some districts where the colour line is still observed.  On the other hand, the average Māori appointee would be inclined to suffer from an inferiority complex when dealing with Europeans, or be imbued with authority and fail to use discretion when dealing with Maoris.” [9]

Other officers appealed to common stereotypes that Māori were too lazy or too subject to tribal pressures to enforce the law impartially.[10]   It was not until 1955 that Sam Barnett, then Controller General of the Police, reserved 25 of the first 100 places at the newly established Police Training School, for Maori, and sought recruiting assistance from the Department of Māori Affairs,.  By the time I joined the police in 1958, there were 23 Māori in the police, but we made little impact.  A ‘war on crime’ was being waged, and Māori youth were the enemy.  Election promises to increase police numbers became a standard political strategy, and continues to this day.

The 1961 Hunn Report confirmed that Māori were more likely than non- Māori to be imprisoned, sent to Borstal or placed on probation, less likely to have court cases dismissed than non-Maori, and more likely to be committed to the Supreme Court for trial.[11] Māori came to Court with no idea how to plead or defend themselves, and about 80 percent of Māori were not represented by counsel, compared to 60 per cent of Europeans. In addition, about 80 to 85% of Māori pleaded guilty compared to 60 percent of Europeans.[12]  Sir Jack Hunn raised the issue with the police, justice and welfare authorities, and the Secretary of Justice convened a meeting to discuss the matter.  The meeting reached an impasse, when the magistrates and probation officers strongly asserted that there was no problem.[13]

Those concerns persisted over the years, and despite the abundance of evidence pointing to an unfair and unjust criminal justice system, attempts to engage the state in addressing underlying issues of racism since then have been diligently avoided.

The restructuring of the public sector in the 1980’s, and the introduction of neoliberal policies promoted political and public support for aggressive control of a marginalised underclass perceived to be disorderly, drug-prone, violent and dangerous. [14]   Offenders were no longer people in need of support, but risks to be carefully managed.  Prisoners became objects rather than subjects.  What evolved was not a system of justice, but a system of punishment”.

This excerpt is from Kim Workman’s 2018 Waitangi Rua Rautau Lecture, presented on 4 February at Wahiao Marae, Rotorua, Aotearoa-New Zealand. Kim Workman is an Adjunct Research Fellow, Institute of Criminology, VUW. You can read his full lecture here, and hear it here. 


[1] John Pratt, Punishment in a Perfect Society – The New Zealand Penal System 1840-1939 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992), 245

[2] Statistics of New Zealand 1872, 1902, 1912. See also: F. Lingard, Prison Labour in New Zealand (Wellington: Government Printer 1936), 55.

[3] R. M. Laing, F. de la Mare, and B. Baughan, “The Penal System of New Zealand,” Howard Journal of Penology and Crime Prevention 3, no. 4 (1933), 48-54.

[4] Michael Foucault, Discipline and Punish (London: Allen Lane, 1977).

[5] Pratt, John. “The dark side of paradise: Explaining New Zealand’s history of high imprisonment.” British Journal of Criminology 46.4 (2005): 541-560.p.551

[6]The Māori population changed from being 80% rural in 1940, to some 80% urban by 1986.  Ian Pool, Te iwi Māori (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1991), 123, 154, 182, 197

[7] J.K.Hunn J K Report on Department of Māori Affairs: With statistical supplement (Wellington: Government Printer, 1961) 64.

[8] Young, Sherwood, ‘Carran, William 1898 – 1960’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Vol 5, Wellington.  Auckland University Press/Department of Internal Affairs, 2000, p.95

[9] Butterworth, Graham and Susan, ‘Policing and the Tangata Whenua, 1935 – 85’, Number 16, Treaty of Waitangi Research Unit, Rangatiratanga Series. P.16

[10] Ibid

[11] J. K. Hunn, Report on the Department of Māori Affairs (Wellington: Government Printer, 1961), 34.

[12] Ibid, 32-33.

[13] Graham Butterworth and Susan Butterworth, Policing and the Tangata Whenua, 1935-85 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2008), pp 30-31.

[14] Kim Workman, “The Future of Restorative Justice,” a paper presented to the Annual Conference of Restorative Justice Aotearoa, at Hamilton, September 2008.

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