Last week the Howard League mounted the third annual conference of the instructors and administrators who work on the league's driver licensing programme.
It was a thoroughly positive experience, and I left the venue in Taupō on Thursday on a high and determined to improve and expand the programme.
We help people on community probation to get their driver's licences. These are mostly recently released prisoners, and like the general prison population, Māori are heavily overrepresented.
We began with a trial in Hawke's Bay seven years ago and the programme's success has seen it expand to 18 locations.
In 2018 we successfully applied to the Provincial Growth Fund to mount 12 programmes in regional New Zealand. The cost-effectiveness of these programmes has meant the Howard League has been able to add another two.
We are very grateful to Waka Kotahi, NZ Transport Agency, officials of which had a good look at the programme and agreed to fund a further four programmes in urban New Zealand, with two in Auckland and one each in Wellington and Christchurch.
Our instructors are over-achievers to a man and woman, with a wonderful commitment to the success of people who can be the most difficult clients imaginable.
Our Whangārei tutor recently guided a completely illiterate probationer through his licence after a local judge told him he would be jailed if he did not contact the Howard League and do something about his unlicensed driving.
With each prisoner now costing the taxpayer close to $190,000 per year, this amounts to an excellent deal for anyone who forks over a chunk of their income to the IRD every year.
The contracted target set for the 12 original programmes is 144 licences per month or an average of 12 licences per Instructor per month.
In the most recent month of April, we achieved a total of 400 licences with the average per tutor of 22, and this was achieved with a 90 per cent pass rate.
Research undertaken by Sir Bill English's Impact Lab reports that for every dollar spent on this programme the return to the taxpayer is $3.26, and that figure was calculated when the published annual cost of each prisoner was around $120,000 – not the recently computed $190,000.
The New Zealand Howard League has broader ambitions than just this programme, and the recent conference was an opportunity for me to review New Zealand's penal system and make a judgment on its general direction.
For many years it has been a depressing story of growing prisoner numbers and sky-high rates of reoffending but in recent years, since the change of government in 2017, there has been light at the end of what seemed an endlessly long tunnel.
New Zealand's prison population peaked in 2017 at 10,250 but according to the latest statistics it is now hovering around 8750, a reduction of 1500 prisoners over four years.
This has meant New Zealand's incarceration rate has dropped from a peak of 218 per 100,000 of population in 2018 to 167 in late 2020, still just ahead of Australia's rate of 159.
This remains too high but undoubtedly is headed in the right direction.
Some of this is down to the appointing of extra judges by Andrew Little, resulting in shorter periods in jail for prisoners on remand, but much is due to reduced reoffending.
This trend is a result of much better attention being paid to prisoners after their release, especially getting driver's licences and guidance about finding a job.
Licences and jobs are closely connected – more that 80 per cent of the entry-level jobs to which ex-prisoners can aspire specify at least a restricted licence.
Ten years ago, I inquired about what happened to prisoners on release, and was told of a "steps to freedom" programme.
I discovered this usually amounted to just one item – a token the ex-prisoner took to Winz and swapped for $320.
I was amazed at this sloppy treatment, having found that countries with very low rates of reoffending – like Germany – make certain that prisoners have a job on release and even set ex-prisoner job quotas for major employers.
Matters have changed for the better in the intervening decade and Corrections now employs Guided Release managers, along with Employment and Training consultants. These managers are often a source of referrals to the Howard League's licence programme and independent research shows that over half the league's clients passing licences also get jobs within their first year of freedom.
If a job is found on their release, research shows that the likelihood of someone reoffending is at least halved.
Corrections has further plans under its "Hokai Rangi" strategy to reduce Māori incarceration. This includes driver licensing for prisoners prior to release.
We at the Howard League are delighted to be asked for a proposal on this sensible and far-sighted plan.
Watch this space!
• 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.