The prison reform advocates who make up the membership of the New Zealand Howard League plus the several hundred well-wishers and volunteers who have contributed their cash and time to teach prisoners a range of skills over the past decade in which I've been involved with the league at last have some real reasons to celebrate.
On March 26, 2018 New Zealand's jail population hit an all-time high of 10,280 prisoners and the country was on track to exceed 12,000 prisoners by this month - as predicted by the Justice Department.
The Government took a calculated and a politically dangerous decision to abandon the development of a new mega prison at Waikeria – 1200 new prison beds at it most extreme expression.
The risk paid off and as of last week prisoner numbers were 9489 and on a downward trajectory.
At a cost exceeding $120,000 per prisoner per annum, 791 fewer prisoners equal a saving to the taxpayer of close to $100,000,000. This also means fewer lives ruined and families disrupted, and fewer prospects for the gangs that infest our jails to recruit.
Minister Kelvin Davis has been a quiet achiever in the Corrections portfolio and must be congratulated on an achievement that has eluded his predecessors over many years.
This reduction in prisoner numbers is not the only good news coming out of the penal sector.
The latest statistics on literacy show that functional illiteracy amongst prisoners has declined from 65 per cent to 58 per cent over the past five years and the profound illiteracy which the Howard League literacy programme volunteers target has also dropped from 22 per cent to 18 per cent.
Though there is obviously a long way to go, these numbers tell us that the contracted literacy suppliers – mostly Te Wananga O Aotearoa - and the Howard League volunteers have developed traction in solving what has been a major problem for prisoners on release and likely a major cause of post-release unemployment and therefore re-offending.
With the departure of Simon Bridges as National Party leader, it is to be hoped that the upcoming election campaign will manage a more rational debate around "law and order" than was otherwise looming.
Simon Bridges gave the impression that the only ace he thought he had in his personal hand was to be "tough on crime".
This is a stance that may win a few votes at the fringes, but which has served New Zealand very badly over many years.
One of Bridges' pet policies, an imitation of a failed Australian strategy to set up a specific anti-gang police unit, seems to have already been cast aside as last week National police spokesperson Brett Hudson confirmed the party, if elected, would not direct the police to set up a specialist unit akin to "Strike Force Raptor".
This kind of focus on punishment has given us one of the highest rates of incarceration in the civilised world, and devastated the lives of far too many of our citizens and their families, particularly those identifying as Māori.
It is to be hoped that the National Party rediscovers a Sir Bill English era policy of reducing sentences for non-violent prisoners who improve themselves while in jail by getting a skill in something as basic as learning to read and write.
This strategy, amongst others, reduced the prison population in New York State by more than a quarter over a decade and should be adopted whole-heartedly by whatever hue of government emerges after the September general election.
It is disappointing that the current Government has not implemented the policy which would be the responsibility of the Justice Ministry and Andrew Little rather than Corrections.
This would require an enhanced emphasis on education and training in jails, but that might be a very good use of the many millions of dollars saved by the reducing prisoner muster.
Some of this money could also go into making sure that no prisoner is released without having been given at least a chance at getting a learner driver's license.
Such a strategy would greatly improve the chances of the released prisoners getting employment.
More than 80 per cent of the kind of entry-level jobs that these people can aspire to specify at least a restricted license.
A learner licence which can be achieved in any of our jails is a huge step in that direction.
A learner licence also provides a widely accepted means of identification which many released prisoners lack.
The gross and shameful over representation of Māori in our jails has also become more of a priority on Minister Kelvin Davis watch.
The appointment of former Ngati Tuwharetoa CEO, Topia Rameka as Corrections Deputy CEO Māori and the adoption of Hokai Rangi, a strategy specifically aimed at reducing Māori incarceration are two more steps in a positive direction. At last.
* Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president.