Locking people up is an important part of our criminal justice system that has some positive benefits, but alone it is demonstrably deficient in solving such a complex social phenomenon. If we are to reduce reoffending, and thereby create fewer victims, crime must often be viewed not as the problem but as a symptom of a problem.

The idea of "social impact bonds", experimental and profit-based initiatives used to tackle social problems, has caused a stir. But if they are expanded into the realm of crime and justice, they neatly characterise this Government's approach.

A radical change in penal policy was signalled in 2011 when Bill English called prison "a moral and fiscal failure". Nothing focuses the mind on a prison population nearly 40 per cent higher than Australia's like a global financial crisis.

In 2012, the Government announced an ambitious goal to reduce reoffending by 25 per cent by 2017. Under the leadership of Corrections chief executive Ray Smith, laudable efforts have been made to reduce the chance of prisoners reoffending on release. Marry these ambitions with National's long-held faith in private prisons (around 20 per cent of prisoners are in prisons not run by the state) and the idea of social impact bonds are a natural fit.

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Exactly how easy it will be to get people to invest in programmes to address reoffending is unclear but the canny investor may take guidance from a bunch of Christian do-gooders in Christchurch.

With little more than good intentions, Pathway Trust established a prisoner reintegration programme in 2008. My colleague Ben Elley and I reviewed it to see if it actually worked.

Department of Corrections data show that 54 per cent of released prisoners are reconvicted of new offences and 35 per cent return to prison within 12 months. Of those who went through the Pathway programme, 36 per cent were reconvicted and 20 per cent re-imprisoned. In other words, those people involved with the programme were 33.3 per cent less likely to be reconvicted and 42.9 per cent less likely to be re-imprisoned.

We found that the key to Pathway's success was defining a criminal as more than just the crime they commit - by looking at the factors that contributed to the behaviour.

The majority of those who went through the Pathway programme reported extremely negative, unhappy, and crime-dominated lifestyles, and many had undertaken long stretches in prison. These experiences created a mentality that inhibited reform. They also shared a perception that society was unable or unwilling to give them a chance. Individualising the programme and mitigating impediments to change was vital.

The major driver of the programme's success was the personal support provided by the reintegration staff. Having somebody to turn to and rely on, even for the smallest of things, was the hinge upon which everything turned.

For most people, having close, positive friends and family is taken for granted. If we have a problem or need a hand, even just a friendly ear, we have a number of people to rely on. Many people have none. And often when they do have support it is criminal or antisocial in nature.

At this point some people will say these crooks just need greater fortitude. Individual responsibility and all that. But anybody who has tried to lose weight, give up smoking, or change careers knows that even small changes in one's life are often difficult to achieve alone. Unsurprisingly, therefore, we found people needed help to achieve that change.

And in case you missed it, that's where we earn our dividends. So long as prison and punishment are seen as the sole answers to crime we will not reduce reoffending rates. Whether saving souls or building a business case, this conclusion is undeniable.

• Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist and author of Patched: the History of Gangs in New Zealand.