The Act Party will "turn over a new leaf" and launch policy to support prisoners after leader David Seymour witnessed work being done by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Seymour told the Herald a new policy would be revealed at the party's annual conference on Saturday.

"We have done tough on crime and continue to promote those policies - extending three-strikes to burglary ... but we are also going to turn over a new leaf and start talking about being smart on crime."

Prime Minister Bill English and Act leader David Seymour at the graduation ceremony for prisoners from the Howard League's literacy programme last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Bill English and Act leader David Seymour at the graduation ceremony for prisoners from the Howard League's literacy programme last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A keynote speaker at the Act conference in Auckland's Orakei is former Labour Party president Mike Williams.

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Williams is now the chief executive of the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform, which runs literacy programmes that aim to get prisoners to a competent reading level, enabling them to read books to their children, take driver tests and have a better chance of finding work when they are released.

Almost 65 per cent of the men and women in prison fall below NCEA level one literacy and numeracy.

Corrections formalised a partnership with the Howard League in June 2014, signing a three-way agreement with the Ministry of Education, and has allocated about $100,000 to expand the driver licence and literacy programme.

Last year Seymour joined Williams and Bill English at a prizegiving ceremony at Rimutaka Prison, where inmates who had completed the league's literacy programme and learnt to read spoke about what it meant to them. Tutors who volunteered in the programme also spoke.

"What they [the league] are doing is very Act," Seymour said. "They have got a private initiative with volunteers ... they have had an extraordinary impact on people who have never had a piece of paper with their name and face on it before, have never been able to open a bank account.

"I went there because I was already thinking about the issue ... I still think that people that commit three violent crimes should get the maximum sentence. But I think we can do a bit better on the first two strikes."

Former Labour Party president Mike Williams, now chief executive of the Howard League. Photo / Duncan Brown
Former Labour Party president Mike Williams, now chief executive of the Howard League. Photo / Duncan Brown

Williams - praised as "legendary" in an Act press release promoting his conference speech - told the Herald that he felt very positively about Seymour's interest in reoffending programmes.

"I am on a completely different side of the fence to David Seymour. However, I am impressed with the guy. He is open-minded about the problem of incarceration in New Zealand, and I have found him intelligent and forward-looking."

In October, the Government announced plans to cope with a booming prisoner population including a 1500-bed prison on the current Waikeria Prison site in Waikato.

Those changes will hit the Government's books by an extra $2.5 billion over about five years.

Williams has previously said that although successive Corrections ministers have supported measures to reduce reoffending, the prison population was growing because of harder bail and parole rules, an influx of deportees from Australia and the three-strikes legislation.