An old friend working for a senior politician called me a month ago to see if I knew of any jobs for ex-prisoners.
The politician had been at a function in her electorate when a former prisoner approached her with a tale of woe.
Despite having served his sentence in full, not offended in the many years since his release, taken several courses and received positive references for voluntary work he'd undertaken, he simply couldn't even get as far as a job interview.
I set up a meeting with the ex-prisoner who arrived well turned-out with a predictably thin CV that a church group he'd joined had helped him to prepare.
He seemed intelligent and certainly looked employable. He said that he was happy to "give anything a go" having existed on a benefit for many long years.
I called a friend who runs a large company with which I'm associated and which I know is short of workers.
I also knew that in recent years, the shortage of workers in Auckland has pushed this company to take on ex-prisoners and that the experience so been positive so far.
My employer mate asked his human resources manager to give the ex-prisoner an interview which resulted in a job trial.
When I checked two weeks later the ex-prisoner had settled into a job as a cleaner and his managers were happy to keep him on.
Having now been involved in penal reform for seven years, this episode was a pleasing and fitting end to a year in which we finally saw some progress towards a more enlightened prison system and a long overdue reduction in New Zealand's bloated prison population.
After rising, apparently inexorably, for years prisoner numbers took a welcome dip during 2018 meaning that the long-suffering taxpayer was supporting about five hundred fewer prisoners at $110,000 per annum each and avoiding spending another billion or two on yet another jail.
One reason for this fall in prisoner numbers is the very low levels of unemployment.
This is encouraging more employers, like my mate, to take the plunge and give ex-prisoners a chance.
I've spoken to several of these brave captains of industry and can report that none who chose wisely has been disappointed.
The Corrections Department must get some credit for more prisoners getting jobs on release, having doggedly pursued a now significant group of initially dubious employers over the last five years.
This kind of effort pays big dividends.
Germany, which boasts a much lower incarceration and recidivism rate than New Zealand, insists on its major employers accepting a modest quota of released prisoners.
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis also gets a big pat on the back. The Labour Party went into last year's election with a policy of reducing the prison population by 30 per cent over time and Kelvin's already bringing this about.
Without any new legislation to rely on Minister Davis challenged the public servants to come up with 10 ideas on how to reduce prisoner numbers.
One bright spark observed that many prisoners who were eligible release with monitoring anklets were unable to get released on parole because their literacy was so poor they couldn't fill in the necessary forms.
The answer was obviously to help those eligible for this kind of release and this has worked.
This story underlines the need for a much better understanding by senior Justice officials of who is in their care.
It has been known for at least seven years that up to 85 per cent of New Zealand prisoners are functionally illiterate. This was revealed when the former National Government wisely began evaluating prisoners on arrival.
Despite this widely propagated knowledge, prisoners were still expected to fill in complex forms. Every prisoner has a case manager and you'd have to ask what on earth these people were doing.
Looking towards 2019, The Howard League would hope to see some agreement on legislative reform in the Justice space.
If I was to offer advice to ministers Andrew Little, Kelvin Davis and Stuart Nash who meet regularly to advance justice matters, I'd again suggest implementing a law offering prisoners reduced sentences in return for acquiring skills like literacy, carpentry, drain laying, etc, etc.
This policy worked wonders when implemented in Americans and heavily contributed to New York State's 26 per cent reduction in prisoner numbers in less than a decade.
This policy was initially developed by Act Party leader David Seymour, was adopted by the National Party in its 2018 election manifesto and endorsed by activists normally associated with the drive for longer sentences.
Given that provenance, this policy should be blatantly filched by Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters with loud thanks to its originators.
In 2019 we'll see how far the recent explosion of common sense has gone!
- 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.