New Zealand's most prolific criminal has been sentenced a "mind-blowing" 214 times.

Ministry of Justice figures paint a disturbing picture of Kiwis who spend their lives in and out of the court system, a system that experts say is failing.

The 20 people who have appeared before the courts the most times have been collectively sentenced 2562 times since 1980, but their offending is relatively low-level, raising questions about the effect of court sentences in curbing re-offending.

The man who was convicted 214 times is in his 70s, but was first convicted when he was 33, show figures obtained by the Herald on Sunday under the Official Information Act.

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His most serious offence was a non-aggravated sexual assault.

The data revealed that all those in the top 20 were men. Seventeen were first convicted before they were 19 years old.

The figures show how many times a person has been convicted of a case, not their number of individual convictions. One case could account for dozens of offences, meaning those on the list are appearing before the courts incredibly often.

For privacy reasons the offenders could not be identified, but the data did state their most serious crimes, which were made up of: Seven burglary related offences, five low-level sex crimes, six violence offences, and one each relating to drugs and arson.

Such crimes are likely to carry just short jail sentences, if any at all, explaining why the offenders were able to appear before the courts so often.

Lawyers and offender advocates said the high numbers raised serious questions about the effectiveness of criminal sentences.

Defence lawyer and former Crown prosecutor, Marc Corlett, said the numbers were "mind-blowing".

"I have never seen numbers like this before," he said. "It just goes to show that we are using criminal law as a solution to social problems like mental health and substance abuse, and it is an extremely blunt instrument."

Michelle Kidd, of Te Rangimarie Charitable Trust, said rehabilitation and mental health services could reduce such offending.

"It is quite clear to me that these people, who are aged over 40 and still coming through the court system for minor charges, are not getting the help they need."

Kidd, who helped establish the New Beginnings Court, which sentences homeless to treatment, and the Auckland Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court pilot, said most offenders she sees have complex substance abuse and mental health issues and if given help could stop offending.

"The options aren't there, the only options they have are, 'Finally, you have broken the law we can put you in prison'."

Howard League Canterbury president Jolyon White said the figures were "quite horrifying" and current solutions to reducing re-offending were not working.

"There are no easy answers, we don't think there is a magic bullet that one agency can do to correct this."

He said the scope needed to be widened by building on current initiatives such as Special Circumstance Courts, which sentence drug offenders, the homeless, addicts and the mentally ill to treatment instead of jail.

"People who have spent most of their adult life in and out of Corrections will lack good connections on the outside. They are likely to have no family skills, social skills, education or work experience.

"These challenges are made worse by often a really unhelpful attitude when someone gets released from prison. If you want people to integrate well it's those connections and skills that are going to be helpful."

Auckland barrister Danielle Beston said that the use of special court and therapeutic justice was picking up, but it was not yet evident through statistics.

A Corrections spokesman said offenders with "significant" previous convictions were actually targeted as a higher priority for rehabilitation.

The number of people who have received criminal convictions annually in New Zealand has decreased year on year.

In 2012 80,597 people received more than one conviction. In 2013 that dropped to 74,320 and in 2014 to 68,297.