It was surprising and a not a little disgusting to read that the National Party's Justice spokesman, Mark Mitchell, described the recent Justice Summit, which I attended, as "nothing more than a public relations exercise to try to justify plans to go soft on crime".

Although I'm told Mitchell could have been at the conference, I didn't see him there at any time and National was represented only for a couple of hours on the second day by three obscure MPs who clung together and took no part in the discussions or break-out groups that I could detect.

This is a great pity because this conference seemed to me to be a genuine attempt to get cross-party buy-in for solutions to New Zealand's incarceration problem and amounted to an opportunity to examine and hopefully begin the process of derailing the costly problem that our bloated prison population has became, particularly under Mark Mitchell's National Party government.

Some recent revelations have demonstrated that National's recent administration of the Justice sector was sloppy, and that's being charitable.


Last week in these pages I lamented the fact that the media had missed a piece of good news about the surprising and unpredicted decline in the number of prisoners.

Though I doubt that my piece in Hawke's Bay Today had any bearing on it, in the last week there has at last been some coverage of this matter and some fascinating facts have emerged about how this came about.

Just to remind ourselves, the prison population declined by just on 5 per cent between March and August this year.

It emerges that Correction Minister Kelvin Davis, who has been an attack target for Mitchell and National, is doing a much better job than he's been credited with and signed off a permanent programme of small but obviously effective reforms in January.

Many of these initiatives have had the effect of allowing better access to the Justice system and reducing prisoner numbers without resorting to any politically dangerous measures such as reduced sentences or repealing the ridiculous 'three strike" law.

Although organisations such as the New Zealand Howard League have been drawing attention to the fact the Corrections Department itself has established a majority of prisoners can't read and write, it appears that only in the last year has the penny dropped with those who run the Justice system.

One report quotes Corrections Deputy National Commissioner Leigh Marsh as working out why so many offenders on electronic bail were "failing and clogging up the system".

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It seems that these illiterate and semi-literate people were being confronted by complicated forms to fill in that they simply couldn't understand.

The answer was to get someone to assist with this documentation and explain exactly the responsibilities the released offenders were taking on.

Electronic bail costs the taxpayer around $4600 per annum for each application, compared with well over $100,000 to jail an offender so this kind of simple solution is almost literally worth its weight in gold.

The habit of confiscating telephones on arrival and/or deleting the offenders' database of phone numbers was found (surprise, surprise!) to cause problems when release time came around.

Prisoners were unable to contact relatives or friends who might offer the accommodation necessary for the Parole Board to allow a release because they could not access the necessary phone numbers.

The previous "solution" to this problem was for Corrections officials to advise the prisoner to "write letters" to anyone who might offer a bed, again ignoring the established fact the writing, like reading, is likely to be beyond most prisoners.

One further suggestion would be to make sure prisoners know that their release documents, called "steps to freedom" are a valid form of photo-identification for getting a driver's licence or a bank account.

Kelvin Davis is reported as saying "I just think, why this stuff wasn't done before".

He should also ask what else might be done, and that's where the Justice Summit could have been decisive had the National Party taken a real interest. .

It's worth repeating that New Zealand's incarceration rate of 220 per 100,000 of population is way out of line with the countries with which we normally compare ourselves. Finland, in the middle of last century, was headed in the same direction as New Zealand and now has a rate of just 57 prisoners per 100,000.

This country devised mature bi-partisan solutions to the problem which included avoiding politicising the issue and this saved its taxpayers megabucks without added risk over many years.

This is exactly the reverse of what Mark Mitchell was attempting to achieve by his premature and unfounded accusations about the Government going "soft on crime".

Sigh. Depressing!

• Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.