As readers of this column will know, the Howard League has been pioneering an initiative in Hawke's Bay aimed at helping offenders on probation for driving offences to get their licences.

The genesis of the programme was the observation that New Zealand's bloated prisoner muster is the result of heavy over-representation of Māori in our jails - 52 per cent of male prisoners more than 60 per cent of the women.

Digging deeper into the statistics, we found that more than two thirds of these Māori prisoners had a driving offence as an element in their first jail sentence.

Repeatedly, Howard League people have met young Māori prisoners at The Howard League's in-jail programmes – literacy, te reo Māori, bee-keeping, CV writing etc - who had similar life experiences.

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Essentially, they'd driven without licences so often that finally they got jail sentences. Mostly there were other elements to this first sentence, but it was usually the lack of a licence that drew the attention of the police, who would have a very good idea who the unlicensed drivers were in their own districts.

Once behind bars, these usually young offenders got recruited into one of the gangs that infest our jails and would often commit a crime on release to demonstrate that they were "staunch".

This put them on the treadmill which took them back to jail repeatedly, adding to the sky-high rate of reoffending which bedevils the New Zealand penal system.

This narrative is something of an over-simplification, but the simple message is that getting drivers' licences for significant numbers of these mainly young offenders will get many of them off a path that leads to repeated jail sentences.

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From its beginnings in middle of 2014, our Hawke's Bay offenders' drivers' licence trial had, by mid this year, produced 750 licences.

It is a huge success by any measure.

Much of the credit must go to our Hawke's Bay tutor, Anne, whose warm and generous nature, patience and perseverance is the main reason for this outcome.

Some years ago, I wrote to the then Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, to ask if she had any research around the relationship between a having a licence and getting a job.

Minister Collins had already done her homework, anticipated interest in this matter and was able to immediately tell me that fully 84 per cent of entry-level jobs specify the requirement of at least a restricted licence.

Thus, getting a driver's licence means a vastly improved chance of getting a job, which is another very important way of getting off the path to jail.

After we'd been trialling this initiative for a year, the Land Transport Agency and the Department of Corrections took an interest in the results.

The LTA granted us $100,000 from the personalised plates income to carry on with the trial. Up to that point, it had been financed by generous Hawke's Bay locals.

The Corrections Department then funded a second trial to be run in West Auckland, with the objective of ascertaining if the HB programme could be duplicated.

With the benefit of the experience gained from Hawke's Bay, we were able to repeat the success of the Bay programme working with the Henderson and Wairau Probation Offices and the two Auckland Alcohol and Drug Courts.

The West Auckland Corrections Region now has the best record in the country at finding jobs for offenders and local Probation Officers credit the driving offenders' programme with this highly desirable result.

Such was the appealing logic behind these programmes that a large private donor then funded a third to be based in Whāngārei .

This took off rapidly and well before last year's General Election, we invited Northland resident Shane Jones as guest speaker at a party to celebrate the 100th licence produced there.

At this point, we got lucky in a big way!

What could not have been anticipated in anyone's wildest dreams was that by the time of the event, Shane Jones would not only be a senior minister in the new Coalition Government but that he would oversee the Government's billion-dollar Provincial Growth Fund.

One major objective of this fund is to promote employment in regional New Zealand by getting as many of those who are not in employment, education or training, (NEETs), ready for work.

As this is what our programme is proven to achieve we applied to the PGF to expand the scope of the programme to 11 extra provincial sites for three years.

After our programme was closely evaluated by MBIE, and we successfully cleared several hurdles, it was announced that the funding would be available for 12 programmes for three years.

With a bit more determination, some generous and committed Hawke's Bay people will have created a nice gift for many other regions.

• 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.