Friday, 13 April 2012

Ignoring Inconvenient Truths: Criminal Justice and Lazy Scholarship in Aotearoa/New Zealand

The purpose of this entry is to provide a brief overview of the current state of much of the scholarship that academics and social commentators are producing re: the issue of Maori and criminal justice.

Missing the Wood for the Trees
In late November 2011 I was in Wellington to give a paper at a Restorative Justice practitioners conference.  Soon after I arrived one of the 'demi-God's' of crime control policy in New Zealand, Kim Workman introduced me to another participant as 'Juan, the radical', effectively giving me a promotion.  He proceeded to tell his mate an interesting story: earlier that year after he had presented a paper on Maori crime at a conference in the Waikato region, a young man said to him 'any work about Maori and crime issues and doesn't cite Moana Jackson or Juan Tauri' is bullsh*t"!  Kim, laughing, tongue firmly set against his cheek, then said, 'Juan is famous'.... and our lovely chitchat ended there and we parted.  

I had read the paper he presented at the conference and agreed with the young man's comments, although I wouldn't go so far as to call it bullsh*t.  The paper was well-written and contained some useful information on the 'Maori situation', especially for policy wonks who would appreciate that it glossed over nasty fish hooks like, ah, institutional racism (at least in a meaningful way), or the failure of so many of the imported interventions both they and other liberal commentators have been supporting for decades, while providing a set of safe (largely 'business as usual') non-threatening policy options for them to consider.  The paper contained a number of the weaknesses that are sadly all too prevalent in mainstream criminological commentary on 'the Maori problem', including:
  1. too much focus on the international perspective (and supporting the importation of overseas programmes and policies of dubious quality);
  2. a tendency to ignore critical research and commentary produced 'at home' by Maori and non-Maori academics, researchers and practitioners; and 
  3. a preference for analysing Indigenous issues from within the uncritical confines (and safety) of Eurocentric frameworks provided by the state (criminal justice systems and policies) and the academy (Law, Criminology, Psychology, etc).  This approach can be seen in a number of recent 'expert' commentaries by Danette Marie (which is an exemplar of this type of approach), Newbold and Jeffries (2010), Department of Corrections (2007) and to a lesser extent, Hess (2011) and  Tinsley and McDonald (2011: (the report can be found on line by typing in 'Kim Workman', or the title of the paper: Redemption Denied: Aspects of Maori Over-representation in the Criminal Justice System). 
The fundamental weakness in this approach is evident in Workman's paper through his inexplicable decision to ignore what is the only large-scale empirical research ever completed on Maori experiences of the criminal justice system; namely Jackson's 1988 report He Whaipaanga Hou.  'But', you might say, 'the report is too old'; and the answers to that are 'yes it is', and 'so what?'  Any author claiming to provide us with a thorough discussion of the 'Maori situation' must engage with the experiences of Maori represented in Jackson's report.  Not only is his work still the only in-depth, 'empirical' study of Maori experiences of New Zealand's criminal justice system, but more importantly, (and worryingly) the findings and recommendations are still relevant to the policy settings of 2012.

Furthermore, Jackson's findings have been backed by a range of government and non-government work, including the Maori and Police Perceptions research carried out by Te Whaiti and Roguski in the late 1990s, the range of papers presented (and reported) at the Nga Kaiwhakamarama I Nga Ture 1998 Maori and criminal justice conference, Te Puni Kokiri's 2007 research on Maori offenders experiences of prison... and the list goes on.  In other words, all the meaningful empirical work completed since 1988 (and by that I mean, with the exception of the Te Puni Kokiri report, carried out independent of government) demonstrates that the Maori experience of criminal justice has not fundamentally altered.  Ergo, what the 3,000 Maori who participated in Jackson's work put forward as solutions to the current racist, biased system, still hold value for any discussion of contemporary policy settings.

Similarly, given that Workman claims to be trying to identify existing 'gaps in research and policy', his lack of engagement with (or knowledge of) the work of critical commentators like myself, Mikaere, and Webb is baffling, especially since the issues emanating from all three authors' critical, Maori-centred work clearly constitute gaps in policy and intervention design and delivery, and demonstrate the disempowering nature of New Zealand's crime control processes for Maori.  Engaging with their work is important because their research identifies issues Maori have with recent crime control practises, including (but not exclusively) the increased tendency for uncritical importation of Western crime control policies, and the (recent but ongoing) retrenchment of public financial support for Maori initiatives (as evidenced by recent cuts by government to the much lauded Whanau Ora policy project).  Yet Workman's critical review says nothing about either of these empirically identified issues.  In fact, his work not only overlooks the 'wood for the trees', but bypasses the Maori forest to gaze lovingly at the various exotic, imported species of European and North American crime control initiatives much loved by 'commentators', jurists and policy wonks in the third world jurisdiction we call New Zealand.

Referencing dubious 'evidence': a comment on political opportunism
While presenting at the conference that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, Workman described me to the audience as 'probably the person most critical of the Minister Sharples support for Maori run prisons and his belief in the efficacy of certain prison programmes'.  I sat and nodded politely, while reflecting sadly that most of what he said was inaccurate; the result perhaps of his lack of engagement with the range of critical work I and others produce.  It also highlights the dangers inherent in trying to read the minds of others who you know little about.  For the record, I don't have an issue with Sharples' broad crime control perspective as we share many of the same concerns with the performance of the criminal justice sector.  However, I do believe his view that Iwi will able to run better prisons is just a tad naive when you consider that what any private contracting entity will be running is a  'a prison' as defined and structured through a government agency-constructed contract.  Iwi will not be delivering a 'prison product' designed from thin-air by their corporate tribal arm.  Nor do I have a major issue with attempts to improve the quality and efficacy of prison programmes: I just wish Ministers, Workman and other prison advocates would drop their periodic tendency for displaying an unquestioning acceptance of policy workers' rhetoric about the scientific reliability of their programmes, especially when it aligns with their own interventionist and political agenda.

A recent example of this tendency was a press release from Rethinking Crime and Punishment that took the Sensible Sentencing Trust to task for disagreeing with the then Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins' who had released her own press release extolling the effectiveness of the agency's drug and alcohol initiatives, as 'evidenced' by its own research.  I think that Rethinking Crime and Punishment, Workman and others should be a little more circumspect before breathlessly extolling the so-called scientific claims of the Minister of Corrections and his/her policy wonks; after all this is the same agency that:
  • worked every 'dirty trick' in the policy book to stop a thorough, independent analysis of bias in the criminal justice system as agreed and instructed by Cabinet in the 2006-2007 Effective Interventions work programme.  Part of Corrections strategy was the poorly crafted 2007 review of Maori offending which makes the dubious claim that only two primary theories dominate explanations of Maori overrepresentation, namely bias in the criminal justice system (the 'Maori' theory)  and life-course theory (the 'scientific', rational explanation preferred by policy).  The truth is that Maori and non-Maori commentators have used a vast range of theories to explain the situation and practioners' a diverse range of interventions to alleviate it, and the literature is readily available to demonstrate the falsity of Corrections claims (see Te Puni Kokiri, 2007 and Webb, 2003: a critical commentary on the range of theories will form the basis of another blog).  The reason for Corrections purposeful expunging of Maori and critical theories and related empirical evidence?  Quite simply, Corrections officials employed the report as a strategy to kill off the proposed bias project.  An interesting aside: Corrections officials had no issues with the project when they thought it would focus solely on Police.  It was only when Te Puni Kokiri officials proposed that the project consider bias at all stages of the criminal justice system, that Corrections support suddenly waned (nothing has been produced in the past twenty years in the New Zealand crime control policy context that comes close to the Corrections report as a classic example of an agency starting from a pre-determined set of findings and conclusions prior to carrying out the actual research: it is a must read for anyone with a critical perspective on crime control in New Zealand); and
  • did everything in its power to try to hide the fact that analysis of the first set of data on the effectiveness of its criminogenic suite of programmes actually showed that Maori offenders who received their scientifically-derived 'therapy' had higher reconviction rates than the control group (when the data was reported as such the report was removed from the official who had authored it and given to another official to 'review'.... meaning an attempt was made at massaging the offending data into something more palatable to the organisation).

I suspect that members of Rethinking Crime and Punishment and like-minded individuals already know how unethical crime control policy wonks are when it comes to Maori issues.  The support for then Corrections Minister Judith Collins' statement about 'evidence' for the efficacy of certain initiatives, which was used by Rethinking Crime and Punishment to criticise their main competitors in crime control rhetoric in New Zealand (the Sensible Sentencing Trust),  makes their support for this type of propaganda unacceptable.  From my perspective it makes them look like political opportunists who feed hungrily on the morsels of ideological rhetoric Minister's and policy wonks throw their way  because it suits 'the relationship'.

I'm sure they have their reasons for this behaviour and can provide a number of rationale to justify it.   I have a couple of my own, one being that their critical silence on the often unethical nature of policy making comes from a fear (not unfounded) that to do so might result in government agencies retrenching some of the (already) inconsequential funding agencies throw at external organisations to keep them compliant.  Another unpalatable explanation is that some commentators consider the issues generated from a critical Maori perspective to be insignificant or 'unmentionable' because they do not align with their own policy agenda.  If that is the case then their arrogance is palpable given that Maori have time and again exposed the racism and ineffectiveness of crime control policy making in New Zealand with respect to their communities.  If you ignore our experiences, for whatever reason, then you are part of the problem and not the solution.  

Department of Corrections (2007) Overrepresentation of Maori in the Criminal Justice System: An Exploratory Report.  Wellington: Department of Corrections.  

Hess, J (2011) Addressing the Overrepresentation of the Maori in New Zealand's Criminal Justice System at the Sentencing Stage: How Australia Can Provide a Model for Change, Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, January: 180-209. 

Jackson, M (1988) Maori and the Criminal Justice System: He Whaipaanga Hou: A New Perspective.  Wellington: Department of Justice.

Marie, D (2010) Maori and Criminal Offending: A Critical Appraisal, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(2): 283-300. 

Nga Kaiwhakamarama I Nga Ture (ed.) (1998) Maori and the Criminal Justice System: Ten Years On, conferencing proceedings from the Maori and the Criminal Justice Hui, July, Wellington.  

Newbold, G and Jeffries, S (2010) Race, Crime and Criminal Justice in Australia and New Zealand, in A. Kalunta-Crumpton (ed.) Race, Crime and the Criminal Justice System: International Perspectives: 187-206. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Te Whaiti, P and Roguski, M (1998) Maori Perceptions of the Police.  Wellington: Victoria Link Ltd. 

Te Puni Kokiri (2007) Report on Engagement with Maori Providers, Practitioners and Offenders (draft: available from Juan by request).  Wellington: Te Puni Kokiri. 

Tinsley, Y and McDonald, E (2011) Is There any Other Way?  Possible Alternative to the Current Criminal Justice Process, Canterbury Law Review, 17: 192-221.

Webb, R (2003) Risk Factors, Criminogenic Needs and Maori, Conference Proceedings of the Sociological Association of New Zealand, Knowledge, Capitalism, Critique, December, Auckland. 

Workman, K (2011) Redemption Denied: Aspects of Maori Overrepresentation in the Criminal Justice System, paper presented to the 'Justice in the Round' Conference, University of Waikato, 18-20 April.

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