Social Investment and Māori in Youth Court

Sarah Monod de Froideville

Why are young Māori over-represented in New Zealand’s youth justice system? Maybe we could start by asking them. 

The first Youth Justice Indicators Summary Report, recently released by the Ministry of Justice, shows that young Māori (and Pasifika) increasingly make up the greatest proportion of young people who appear in Youth Court.

We’ve known for a while that young Māori are over-represented in New Zealand’s youth justice system. What we don’t know is why.

Some say young Māori offend more as they are suffering trauma from the intergenerational effects of colonisation. Others say parental incarceration is to blame, as it robs Māori children of their family stability and prison becomes understood as somewhere that Māori go to for a time.

There are also those who argue that the problem is not with Māori but with the criminal justice system. That the over-representation of Māori in our youth system and in our adult jails is a result of institutional bias, i.e. racist cops, prejudiced judges and practices that have a bigger impact on Māori when compared with non-Māori.

We know that there is more than a grain of truth to each of these theories, but we don’t yet have enough research to confirm or refute their claims. So, they are routinely dismissed as radical ideas thrown around by disgruntled Māori and floaty academic types.

But what we also know is that if the coalition government holds onto Bill English’s social investment vision the youth court trends are only going to get worse.

Social investment won’t result in a reduction in ‘adverse outcomes’ for young Māori, only more surveillance, more contact with criminal justice agents, and in the end, more young Māori in youth court than ever before.

How do we know this? Well, the kind of social investment approach that English banged on about is informed by the very same ‘risk factor prevention paradigm’ (RFPP) that has underpinned preventative youth crime policies among Western countries for the last 25 years. The very same RFPP that social scientists have debunked as a methodologically flawed “mishmash of ideas”. The very same RFPP that can’t predict who is going to commit a crime when they grow up any more than I can predict the weather for next weekend. The same RFPP that holds young people responsible for problems that are outside of their control—like household poverty and whether mum did okay in secondary school. Incidentally, the determinism of the RFPP undermines the free will foundation of our criminal law.

The bottom line is that disproportionately more young Māori will qualify for social ‘investment’, simply because Māori are disproportionately represented across all indicators of social disadvantage.

This means they will be disproportionately subject to state intrusion into their lives with early interventions and having information about them shared between agencies. Their normal childhood bumps and bruises will be disproportionately scrutinised for any indication of abuse and those among them who do suffer harm will be disproportionately subject to suspicions they will offend one day. Lots of criminal kids once suffered harm, so isn’t it just logic that harmed kids will be one day be criminal? Right?

Last but not least, early intervention recipients who do go on to offend sometime in the future, for whatever reason, will not only be held accountable for their offending but also for turning out to be a bad investment. There is no free will for someone who once received an intervention. One must respond well to it or else feel the full weight of the law.

If the coalition government is serious about reducing the numbers of rangatahi Māori in the youth justice system (and about trimming the Māori prison muster), then it needs to get rid of the social investment approach. So far, Minister Sepuloni has only tinkered with it, and commentators seem adamant that it is not going anywhere fast.

But a better investment would be one that sought the answers for why young Māori are over-represented in our justice statistics.

One that began, perhaps, by asking them.

Sarah Monod de Froideville is a Lecturer in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. This piece was first published in The Spinoff, 12 May 2018.

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