Views My Own

How National’s New ‘Tough on Crime’ Policies Punish Māori and the Poor

National’s new boot camp policy is another boot in the face for those already facing generational poverty.
August 21, 2017, 3:23am

A week ago, National announced their latest policy, a plan for serious young offenders. Their focus is to crack down on the most serious young offenders, holding negligent parents accountable.

They plan to establish an army-led 'training academy'—a military boot camp, by any other name—based at Waiouru, at a cost of $30 million across four years. The reforms will introduce $200 fines for parents whose young teenagers are found out late at night. Multiple re-offenders over the age of 14 will tried before the adult court, at a time when human rights experts are arguing that New Zealand's current youth court should be extended up to 18. The approach is multifaceted and punitive, tightening bail requirements, increasing surveillance and keeping young people in the justice system for longer sentences. And as usual, it is families in poverty, especially Māori and Pacific communities, that will bear the brunt of the cost.


Previous police minister Judith Collins remarked last year that it was "utter rubbish" to suggest crime was caused by poverty. This attitude permeates and influences our government's decision-making, but it has no basis in reality. The latest crowd-pleasing move is another diversion to avoid addressing cyclical poverty; a wet band-aid plastered over a gunshot wound.

Almost a quarter of all New Zealand children live under the poverty line.

In 2013, the Child Poverty Action Group released a report which found almost a quarter of all New Zealand children live under the poverty line. More than half have lived in sustained poverty for over seven years. Ten percent of those children live in severe poverty. Late last year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child urged the New Zealand government to take immediate action on children deprived of a family environment, standard of living and juvenile justice.

The best research repeatedly suggests that youth crime is inextricably linked to inequity and poverty. In the USA, one study found young people living in poverty commit nearly four times as many violent crimes as 'middle class' youth. Researchers say that up to 20 percent of youth offending is directly attributable to poverty. International studies have demonstrated that this isn't just a matter of dysfunctional families happening to be poor - finding instead that when rates of inequality and poverty go up, so does violent offending by young people.


All this is a little inconvenient for a government looking for a vote-winning scapegoat. New Zealand relies on colonial language to frame crime, which tends to describe white collar crime as evasion, accidents and indiscretions. Minimising the severity of white collar crime conditions the public to pursue, label, police and punish crimes committed by those who endure significant economic hardship. For Māori, 10 percent of our mokopuna live in severe poverty, and are twice as likely as non-Māori to live in a poor household. Māori rangatahi are 4 to 5 times more likely to be apprehended by police than non-Māori. 60 percent of all female prisoners are Māori women. The colonial trauma that exists in the national subconscious remains unaddressed, and manifests in cultural, political and economic spheres. Policies that criminalise the poor also criminalise Māori; and continue New Zealand's legacy of colonisation and violence.

When the weather turns bad and the orchard work dries up, youth crime in the region spikes.

Pockets of Aotearoa with high rates of deprivation are more susceptible to youth offending, despite the nationwide decline. The disproportionate rates of youth crime committed in the Hawke's Bay region are a result of the social ferment that grooms poverty. An average of 25 youths under sixteen are apprehended by police per week, compared with just five a week in the capital. Police say many parents rely on low-wage, unstable seasonal orchard work as their primary source of income. In a telling detail, when the weather turns bad and the orchard work dries up, youth crime in the region spikes.

Investing in impoverished communities is crucial to dismantling cyclical poverty. Creating job opportunities, and improving access to affordable healthcare and education, and empowering communities with the resources to develop unique solutions at a grassroots level is necessary to combat poverty. In Hawke's Bay, iwi-led restorative justice focused on 120 rangatahi who had been exposed to the regional youth justice system. The programme addressed truancy through community work and learning whakapapa, privileging a Māori world view and employing a whānau-centric approach. At the conclusion of the programme, only 20 rangatahi came to police attention. Children's Commissioner Dr. Russell Wills explained that in each case, deprivation and disproportionate poverty were the underlying cause.

Policies under National are imbued with a lack of response to complex, historical issues. The facade of responsible budget management and a miraculous surplus have only been made possible by the strip mining of social welfare. The poor are disposable collateral to be utilised as an election year scapegoat, to incentivise and appeal to middle and upper class factions of society. National's policy conditions us to believe that 14 to 17-year-old children can only be disciplined and punished, and are undeserving of love. For Māori, who experience poverty disproportionately and are thus overexposed to crime, the solution is entrenchment of He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti, which affirm and guarantee our fundamental right to tino rangatiratanga. Self-determination cannot exist in the current climate. Radical systemic reform is the only thing that can carry transformative justice for Māori to have autonomy over our collective destiny, and elevate ourselves out of poverty. To prevent the sprawl of crime, to secure positive outcomes for our rangatahi and to learn from past mistakes, we must face our greatest shame: poverty.

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