Prime Minister Ardern and her Labour Government have embraced some huge challenges around child poverty, homelessness and dirty rivers.

These are ingrained problems that the former National government ignored. They will take some time to put right.

The first step, and one which is well under way, will be to develop transparent and comprehensible methods of measuring these problems.

One big challenge that requires no new measuring tools is the Labour Government's objective of reducing the prison muster.


This year prisoner numbers hit the 10,000 mark, and are projected to grow further.

The defeated National Party government was like a possum caught in the headlights when confronted by this growing social and financial disaster and could only think to plan up to 2000 new prison beds at the Waikeria and Mount Eden sites at a cost to the taxpayers of a billion dollars plus.

With each prisoner costing you and me in excess of $100,000 a year this is a drain on all of us which we should avoid if we possibly can.

My view, having fronted the Howard League for Penal Reform for six years, is that the Labour Party's objective of reducing the number of prisoners by 30 per cent over time is not only extremely desirable, it is very achievable

With Andrew Little as Justice Minister and Kelvin Davis on the Corrections beat, Prime Minister Ardern has allocated two of the best brains in the Labour caucus to this task and there are strategies which would stem or reverse this rising tide of prisoners at little cost and no danger to the community.

Here are three initiatives which would ease the pressure on space, allow the decision on the new jails to be delayed and move New Zealand towards the best practice that prevails in countries that have incarceration rates one third of ours.

First, the Government should immediately implement the policy Bill English borrowed from the Act Party and named "Positive Pathways".

This policy would reward non-violent prisoners who complete rehabilitation programmes and acquire skills with reduced sentences.

This strategy has an excellent track record of success where it has been implemented.

As former Corrections Minister Louise Upston said when the policy was announced: "Rehabilitation programmes work, so we want more prisoners to complete them. They help prisoners prepare for life outside prison, give them skills to get a job, and help stop reoffending."

There will be hundreds of prisoners who already fulfil the requirements for an early release including those who learned to read and write via the Howard League's prisoner literacy programme and those who got learner driver licences.

Just last week we had a Howard League graduation for six prisoners at Auckland women's jail who had earned rare and valuable Telford diplomas in beekeeping.

These women will have no trouble finding well paid employment on release and the risk of them re-offending is very low.

Everyone would gain if these women were released early.

A major advantage of this initiative is that, as an announced National/Act policy the Labour Government would be immune from criticism. It would also give Corrections some breathing space while longer term solutions were devised.

Beyond a bit of spending on analytical time, the cost of this initiative would be nil and the payback immediate.

Second, the $4 million appropriated in Steven Joyce's last budget and aimed at assisting young Maori to get their driver licences should be allocated as soon as possible.

The Howard League has found via its three unlicenced drivers' programmes that 90 per cent of young driving offenders can, with help, get licences and get off the pathway that leads so many of them to a jail sentence.

Fifty-one per cent of prisoners are Maori and sixty-five per cent have a driving offence as at part of their initial jail sentence. This initiative works and leads to employment.

Third, there should be far better use of the voluntary skills on offer to the prisons.

Trained volunteers, like those of the NZ Howard League, offer their skills and services via regionally appointed Corrections officials called volunteer co-ordinators but there are only six of these for the 17 jails. There is just one for the whole of the South Island where four prisons are located and as far as I know the incumbent is yet to visit the jails in Otago and Invercargill.

Right now the Howard League has 11 trained literacy volunteers ready to start at Kaikohe jail. They are twiddling their thumbs waiting for the overworked volunteer co-ordinator for the northern region who is based in Auckland to find some time so they can make a start.

It wouldn't cost a lot to centrally appoint a volunteer co-ordinator for every jail.

The greatly improved ability to access abundant free labour would more than offset any cost.

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.