Courts 'ignoring ethnic factors'
20 August 2007
Maori criminals should have their sentences assessed against their ethnic and cultural backgrounds, a United Nations report says.
The recommendation comes as part of a damning assessment of New Zealand's race relations, issued at the weekend by the United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination.
Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples welcomed the report and said Maori were often the victims of "cultural ignorance" within the criminal justice system.
The report said Maori were over-represented in prisoner statistics and that provisions in the Criminal Justice Act, allowing people to provide "cultural" reasons for their offending, were underutilised.
Under section 16 of the act, relevant cultural information submitted to the court can then be taken into account during sentencing.
The report said only 14 per cent of criminals surveyed were aware of their entitlement and blamed "resistance" among court officials for the low uptake.
Dr Sharples, who has been a vocal critic of the justice system in the past, said he was in total accord with the report's findings. He said the system failed to recognise New Zealand was a multicultural society.
It was disappointing so few prisoners were aware of their right to present cultural evidence to the court, he said. "People within the justice system have made a decision that (cultural factors) are not that valuable. A lot are just ignorant, they just don't see it as a bona fide suggestion."
Dr Sharples said he wanted to see restorative justice and family group conferences used more widely in sentencing, as they were a more culturally appropriate approach to criminal justice for Maori.
The report also criticised the Government's implementation of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, recommending "renewed dialogue" take place between Maori and the government on the legislation.
It recommended the Treaty of Waitangi be entrenched in a national constitution, in order to have binding powers on the Crown.
Concerns were also raised about a members bill proposing to delete references to the Treaty from legislation and the practice of detaining asylum seekers in prisons.
NZ First leader Winston Peters - whose colleague Doug Woolerton sponsors the bill - dismissed the UN report, saying it was erroneous and meddlesome.
Mr Peters said though the report's authors were experts in their fields, they were not experts on the issues facing New Zealand society.
The chairman of the Treaty Tribes Coalition, Ngahiwi Tomoana, said critical international race relations assessments were becoming an embarrassment for the Government.
"Our identity is as a human rights leader and we are consistently being shown up as having serious problems," he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said the report put the Government "on notice" to listen to Maori, particularly on foreshore and seabed issues.
Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres said the committee had produced a balanced report.
Urgent action was needed to deal with the number of Maori being arrested, convicted and jailed, he said.
"There will be differing views about some of the issues raised, but the recommendations are just that."