By Ethan Kisby

New Zealand gang membership, especially Māori gang membership, may have more to do with our colonial history and young men searching for a sense of belonging than organised crime itself. New Zealand’s colonial history has resulted in the breakdown of the traditional Māori social structure, separating Māori from their culture and families. For many Māori that have been separated from their families through state action, gangs have replaced the families they were deprived of. With evidence showing Māori are still subject to racist bias in the justice system, combined with the fact the state continues to ‘uplift’ Māori children, it is unlikely New Zealand can expect a decrease in gang membership any time soon.

Research has found that the main reason youth (11-24 years) join gangs is for the sense of belonging they provide. One report focused on youth in gangs found that most youth who had joined a gang were looking for belonging and community rather than wanting to commit crime.[1] The report found that the majority of youth were joining gangs as they were simply looking for a family, as well as a sense of that which was likely absent from other aspects of their lives.

Another report, ‘Marginalized: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation’, provides a first-hand account of how ethnic bias along with ill-conceived and abusive state policies have led to the suppression, disconnection and abandonment of Māori and led to many Māori youth being left without a family.[2] The report found that the continued marginalisation of Māori,has pushed Māori to find belonging and community in gangs.[3] From New Zealand’s annexation by the British Crown through to our recent history, Māori have been subject to exercises of power by the New Zealand Government in order to consolidate power and authority.

The annexation of Aotearoa in 1840 saw the establishment of a “…unilateral doctrine of state sovereignty.”[4] This doctrine of unilateral state sovereignty controlled Māori through the use of law and an imported legal process, which included the power of punishment. Māori concepts of tikanga (law, correct and proper practices) and the long held Māori tradition of collective land ownership were all virtually ignored by the crown.[5] Following New Zealand’s annexation, the crown has continually subjugated Māori through the suppression of Māori culture. For example, the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 that outlawed traditional Māori healing and cultural approaches to Māori health issues through to the more recent 2007 ‘terror’ raids in Te Urewera.[6]

One of the most harmful exercises of power by the Crown that has lingered throughout New Zealand’s history is the practice of removing young Māori from their families. This practice of the state taking young Māori – deemed ‘at risk’ – from their whānau has seen young children removed from their own families and their own culture and placed in “prison-style institutions”[7] like that of Epuni boys’ home in Lower Hutt. It is estimated that between the 1950s and the 1990s 100,000 children, many of them Maori were deemed to be at risk and needing to be removed from their families.[8] The legacy of this state policy of removing children from their parents only to send them away to places like Epuni Boys Home (now under investigation as part of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care) has an ongoing legacy with the offspring of these children commonly found in the statistics of New Zealand’s criminal justice system.[9]

Stan Coster was a victim of these state policies, and his testimony appears in the Marginalised report. Years of neglect and abandonment in this state care system led him to join the Mongrel Mob. His life had been shaped by foster care, boy’s homes, and prisons. The loss and abandonment he suffered as a child became a defining factor in his life. Later, the state became the dominant force in Stan’s life, serving 25 years behind bars in seven different prisons.

When Stan was nine-years-old, his mother died of cancer. Stan and his siblings were left orphaned and the state took custody of them all. His time at various foster homes ended when the Child Welfare Division of the Department of Education (Ministry Of Education from 1989) terminated his guardianship as a ward of the state.

After incidents involving petty theft, truancy, and alcohol-related offending, he was released into the care of Epuni Boys Home, which housed boys who had been signed over by guardians to the care of the state as well as boys who were ordered there by the courts who had serious criminal records. This combination of abandoned children with young criminals provided an environment where boys who had rather light criminal convictions (or none at all) were heavily influenced by boys who had committed far more serious crimes. Stan’s time at Epuni Boys Home cemented the relationship between himself and the State.

Though Epuni may have been a place that boys were sent who had no families, it was where Stan found the family that he was deprived of since he was nine. At the age of 15 he was approached by a Mongrel Mob member whilst under care at Epuni and began the initiation process.[10] Stan talks about Māori, his own people abandoning him and the pākeha, the white man, stealing and lying, leaving him lost with only one culture to belong to, the Mongrel Mob and “Mongrelism.”[11]

Though Stan’s story of becoming a ward of the state and his time at Epuni Boys Home may have happened decades ago, research into New Zealand’s criminal justice system has found that Māori are still subject to subjugation and racism from the state. Research has found Māori are 1.6 to 1.8 more times likely to be convicted of a crime than other ethnicities.[12] This combined with that fact that the state continues to ‘uplift’ Māori children at a rate of three a week[13] makes a decrease in gang membership anytime in the near future unlikely.

Perpetuating bias in the New Zealand criminal justice system has also been more recently acknowledged in the recently released report by the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group: He Waka Roimta; Transforming Our Criminal Justice System. The report found that, “…racism is embedded in every part of the criminal justice system…”[14] The report also noted that “the system often treats Māori, and Māori ways, as inferior and that individuals acting within the system hold active biases against Māori (consciously and unconsciously).”[15]

New Zealand’s history of colonisation has led to Māori being alienated from their whānau and culture. Māori have replaced lost whānau and culture with gangs. With racial bias still occurring in New Zealand’s justice system it is unlikely that we can expect a decrease in crime and gang membership unless a new approach is taken. If we desire a society with less gang members and lower crime rates, we must acknowledge past wrongs and ensure that these wrongs are not allowed to continue.

Footnotes: 

[1] Eggleston, New Zealand Youth Gangs: Key Findings and Recommendations From an Urban Ethnography, Page 155

[2] https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/article/10.1007/s10612-016-9325-8

[3] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 120

[4] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 121

[5] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 121

[6] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 122

[7] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 121

[8] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 123

[9] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 123

[10] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 129

[11] Andrae, Marginalised: An Insider’s View of the State, State Policies in New Zealand and Gang Formation, Page 129

[12] Fergusson, Ethnicity and Criminal Convictions: Results of a 21-year Longitudinal Study, Page 362

[13] https://www.newsroom.co.nz/@investigations/2019/06/11/629363/nzs-own-taken-generation

[14]Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, Transforming Our Criminal Justice System, P24

[15]Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, Transforming Our Criminal Justice System, P24


Ethan Kisby is an Honours student in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.

See Also:

Q+A: How can we fix New Zealand’s broken justice system?

Q+A: Are our indigenous communities really free?

How can we stop indigenous oppression?