The media covering Acting PM Winston Peter's visit to Hawke's Bay on July 11 missed an important meeting in Napier where he was the keynote speaker and some good news went unreported.

The event was a celebration of the 750th licence in the Howard League's Hawke's Bay driving offender's initiative which has now been granted ongoing support from the Government's Provincial Growth Fund.

This funding is intended to address a social problem summarised by the acronym NEET.

This refers to a (generally) young person who is Not in Employment, Education or Training and though estimates vary, it is generally agreed that there are between 80 and 100,000 NEETs in the country.

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I first heard the term used by former Hastings District Mayor Lawrence Yule some years ago in a speech where he pointed out that though the numbers of unemployed never seemed to fall below 3000 in the Hawke's Bay region, during the harvesting season there was well in excess of this number of workers imported to fill a labour shortage.

The Howard League as a penal reform charity has long taken an interest in this group because a significant proportion of these NEETs slip into crime and go on to form the next generation of prisoners.

Those of us who go into jails on a regular basis cannot avoid the observation that, just like the NEETs, the prison population disproportionately consists of young Maori.

In 2014 with the prison population starting to blow out as a result of poorly planned legislation, a group of senior Corrections officials had a brainstorming session to come up with ideas to reduce the flow of prisoners.

As prisoners who identify as Maori make up more than half our prison population and two thirds of these offenders have a driving offence as an element in their first jail sentence, a Corrections official I'll just call Tracey came up with the visionary idea that getting young offenders their drivers' licences might just stem the flow of new prisoners.

Her idea was to catch these people before they copped a prison sentence but while they were on probation for driving offences and to get them some driving instruction and a licence.

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The benefits of this strategy were likely to be a lot more that just making legal some chronic driving offenders and making the roads a bit safer.

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As 84 per cent of entry-level jobs require a driver's licence, the offenders who got their licences would also be much more likely to get a job – another characteristic of people who don't go to jail.

The Corrections Department backed Tracey's bright idea with $20,000 of regional money which was awarded to the Howard League to trial the concept of a driving offenders programme with the explicit objective of getting (mostly) young people off a pathway that too often leads to jail.

In that year, the League raised another $30,000 from local donors who liked the idea (thanks again!) and we engaged Anne to explore the problem and develop a programme which got offenders their licences.

We found that the barriers to getting a driver's licence could be overcome if we offered to pay the cost of the tests and birth certificates and offer some instruction on driving to pass the test.

The programme that Anne devised - unlike just about every other licensing course - did not attempt classroom instruction but was based on one-to-one attention, or as it's known in Maori "kanohi ki te kanohi".

This has worked stunningly well and I believe that this personalised approach is the great strength of a programme which for nearly four years has generated success rates above 90 per cent in testing locations where the average pass rate is half of that.

Anne's programme has also proven to be portable.

We duplicated the initiative in West Auckland and, with the aid of a very generous philanthropist, have done so again in Whangarei.

Both of these spin-off programmes have been just as successful as the parent programme and came to the attention of Minister Shane Jones when we celebrated our 100th Northland licence in Whangarei before Christmas last year.

It was at this event that two young Maori got up and spoke of how getting their licences after years of offending had got them off a path that led to jail and helped get them into good jobs.

With the success of the Howard League's application to the Provincial Growth Fund we will be launching another nine of these programmes in regional New Zealand and Anne will retire from the Hawke's Bay programme so she can help set up these new programmes and return to teaching prisoners how to read and write at Hawke's Bay Jail, where we always welcome new volunteers.

If you can help, email me at mike@mikewilliams.co.nz

• 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.