NZ’s Incarceration Problem Could Be Fixed By “Giving Māori the Keys”

We spoke to youth advocate Julia Whaipooti about what’s wrong with New Zealand’s justice system and what young people can do to change it.
July 27, 2017, 4:02am
Image by Guy Ryan. 

Most of us are told as children that we have bright futures, but when it comes to young, impoverished Māori in New Zealand, that future is far too likely to be darkened by the barred windows of a prison cell. New Zealand's incarceration rate is one of the highest in the Western world, and 50 percent of the country's prisoners are Māori. Julia Whaipooti, board chair of JustSpeak and ex-community lawyer, wants to change that.


A Māori woman herself, Julia knows the system is flawed. But by empowering the voices of youth through Just Speak and "giving Māori the keys" to creating solutions that work for them, she says we can fix it.

We spoke to the 29-year-old Kiwi to find out what she thinks needs to change in New Zealand's justice system.

VICE: Hi Julia. Can you tell me what exactly your job is?
Julia Whaipooti: I was a lawyer, but now my title is senior officer at the Children's Commission. Don't ask me what I do, I'm not sure yet.

Why did you get involved in law in the first place?
I worked at a supermarket for the last three years of college and on my last day, one of my regular customers came through. She asked me what I was up to, gave me her card, and she was the practicing manager at the biggest law firm in town. Then she said to give her a call. So I ended up at this law firm, being a gofer. I saw grads come in and I knew that I knew more than them so eventually I went off to law school. There were no wholesome feelings attached to that, it wasn't about I want to save the world and do law, it was just that I wanted a job that could put kai on the table.

Law classes would always be talking about Māori. I remember just sitting in class feeling uncomfortable about it, like "hey, we're here".

But my social awareness around the law really grew when law classes would always be talking about Māori. I remember just sitting in class feeling uncomfortable about it, like hey, we're here. It sounded like we were being spoken about, like we weren't in the room. That drove my awareness around some of the social legal issues facing Māori. That's when criminal law really became something I cared about, in terms of making systemic change.

What systematic changes do you want to see?
We see massive imprisonment of Māori, we see structural racism through the justice system, every step of the way. Māori have worse outcomes than non-Māori for the same stuff. Ideally, if we operated as a system that was evidence-based instead of pushing fear mongering, we would see a reeducation of people in prison and that would [mean] a reduction of Māori in prison. We'd see a more holistic response. Part of achieving that is investing in more community-based responses to actual causes or harms that lead to imprisonment as opposed to just addressing the symptoms, because at the moment we seem very tolerant as a country [about investing] billions of dollars into a broken system.


If we go back to Māori prison populations, there are many voices saying the system doesn't work right now. So what would having a Māori voice in the system look like?
There are some tangible things that have come out through our legal processes like the Waitangi Tribunal report around the Crown's failure, or Corrections' failure, to address the disproportionate reoffending rate for Māori who come out of prison systems. One of them is that we need to have an independent, Māori-led voice to develop Māori-led strategies. The truth is, we haven't had a real substantive investment in allowing that to happen. We don't necessarily need more research, we're the most researched people in the world. We need to have the political will to want to address or to empower Māori-led solutions to the problems that have been created by, historically, colonisation and the impacts of that.

It's not enough just to have different programmes and different pockets of things and chucking little bits of money and giving things Māori names, it's just not enough. They don't work. I'm always like, give us the key, as a people. Give us the keys, resource us to come up with solutions to the problems that were created by historical injustices. Resource us to drive the solutions that work for our people.

We have this whole older generation of people who are making decisions for us that are a bit outdated.

Do you think it is possible to fix the system or is it too late?
We have to hope that it is fixable. We can identify things that are legislative fixes. For example, the Bail Amendment Act that was passed in 2012. Let's fix that, and then we can chop our prison population by a quarter almost immediately. And then it gives us space to go what better ways can we do this?

But I do think there's a need for some fresh political thinkers, because we have that old-school politics that's really, I believe, not achieving what's the best for our community but what's best to get you a vote to stay in the house. We have this whole older generation of people who are making decisions for us that are a bit outdated.

So why are you targeting youth through JustSpeak? Why is the youth voice important?
Just to recognise the expertise of different perspectives, whether that's our older generation or our younger generation or our Māori or Pacifica. If we hear these different perspectives, that empowers us to make more informed decisions. But what we see is we have young people who are disengaged from the system because the system doesn't cater for young people, and also be like why should I engage with the system when it doesn't reflect me? Then we're missing that voice and those perspectives, and they are a really rich way of making better decisions for the future.

Julia Whaipooti is speaking at the Festival for the Future in Auckland, August 4-6.

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