Just imagine Bailey Kurariki really wants to go straight. What if the kid who went so far off the rails that, aged 12, he took part in a murder comes out of jail aged 19 determined to be law-abiding. Will society help or hinder him?
Kurariki could be out next month if the Parole Board is satisfied with a reintegration plan proposed for him. If he doesn't get parole he's due for release in September, when his seven-year manslaughter sentence following the murder of Michael Choy is up.
When he steps through the gate, a $350 Steps to Freedom grant from Winz in his pocket, he'll be one of thousands of ex-inmates adjusting to life in the real world - the daily work grind if he's lucky, accommodation costs and budgeting, the distractions and temptations facing a 19-year-old who has never had a girlfriend.
Statistics suggest there's a 44 per cent chance he'll be back behind bars within three years - most likely sooner rather than later. That doesn't mean he won't make it, or that society shouldn't try to help. Trouble is, there's not much out there to help ex-prisoners keep on the straight and narrow. Even the Sensible Sentencing Trust says there should be more.
Kim Workman is project leader of the Rethinking Crime and Punishment Project, and director of the Prison Fellowship, a Christian agency which has helped turn Kurariki around in the past two years.
Nine thousand prisoners are released from prison every year, says Workman. Very few return to a stable home and job to resume where they left off. Many leave prison determined to change their lives, but without the support needed to make that happen.
"The Department of Corrections reintegration strategy ... still effectively stops at the prison gate."
Based in Wellington, the Prison Fellowship has been providing prisoners with trained mentors and volunteer support for over three years, and the results have been encouraging. The Operation Jericho programme begins eight months before release, a plan is drawn up and mentors and volunteers keep in contact for up to two years after release. Workman says it can reduce reoffending rates by between 15 per cent and 40 per cent. And the longer you can stop someone reoffending, the more likely they will stay straight.
"The common approach is to focus on employment and accommodation and think the job is done. Well it isn't. Unless the person has a support group around him - people to talk to when he's down in the dumps or starts smoking pot or drinking ...
"A lot of these young guys that come out are from dysfunctional families. If they don't have that support the odds are stacked against them, however determined they are to change."
He calls it "wrap-around support" for ex-prisoners, a concept which understandably angers victims of crime, and lobby groups such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust.
The project has helped sex offenders and gang heavyweights to stay straight. Workman cites the ex-Mongrel Mob leader from Matamata who has reunited with his wife and family and now works as a welder in Wellington. He struggled initially to kick a cannabis habit. Driving home from work one night (not under the influence), he ran into the back of a car. Thinking he'd be thrown back in jail, he fled to Matamata, where police were waiting. His mentor persuaded him to return to Wellington and arranged time payments with the car owner. Police dropped the charges. Three years on, he's a prison visitor, helping others to turn their lives around.
But efforts to expand Operation Jericho to Auckland were turned down and Workman, a former head of prisons, says prisoner reintegration has "fallen off the 'effective interventions' agenda. Very little money is available to support agencies with the capability to provide reintegration services."
Last year, the Prison Fellowship received $68,000 in government contracts for reintegration work. Donations and other funding sources took total funding to $151,000.
The main player in rehabilitation and reintegration is the Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Society which has just 40 paid employees (many part-time) and hundreds of volunteers. It helps far more people each year than it is funded for; its main focus is on prison visiting but volunteers often liaise between ex-inmates and government agencies on housing and employment needs.
Graeme Page, the society's executive director, says society's miserly attitude to helping ex-prisoners comes back to bite us when they re-offend.
He agrees with Workman that many don't want to be helped. Some come out determined and fully capable of turning their lives around without assistance. Others have alcohol or drug dependency or mental health issues and perhaps can't be helped. Agencies try to target the vulnerable ones who are willing to change but can't do so alone.
"If you get out of jail and you've no resources, what do you do - you go back to your peers, go back to what you know. It's about providing opportunities they didn't know they had."
The benefits are obvious: keeping one inmate behind bars for a year costs taxpayers $60,000. Keeping offenders out of prison means their children are seven times less likely to end up there.
The Corrections Department is reviewing its approach to rehabilitation and reintegration and has appointed former Prison Service general manager Phil McCarthy to head a specialist unit. In December, it was forced to admit its much-vaunted Integrated Offender Management rehabilitation programme had failed, with the number of inmates reimprisoned within two years of release rising from 34 per cent to 39 per cent.
McCarthy concedes funding for post-prison reintegration is strictly limited. He's enthusiastic about mentoring but questions the costs of extending Operation Jericho beyond its Christian volunteer base.
"I wouldn't want to pretend that we're perfect and that people aren't left to their own devices from time to time. But with the initiatives we've put in place in the last few years, it's getting less and less frequent."
Even the Sensible Sentencing Trust sees sense in reintegration. "I hate calling for more resources but ultimately there has to be more," says trust spokesman Garth McVicar. "There are volunteers doing the best they can but it isn't enough."
He says there should be no finite end to a sentence, preventing judges or the Parole Board from imposing conditions on freedom.
As for Bailey Kurariki, McVicar accepts that it's better he be paroled - with conditions imposed on where he lives, who he associates with and what programmes he attends - than walk free in September with no ability to guide his path.
The trust supports Michael Choy's mother, Rita Croskery, who wants an electronic bracelet as a condition of any parole for Kurariki. That's not what the Prison Fellowship - which is working on Kurariki's reintegration plan - would normally advocate.
Workman: "Intensive surveillance of released prisoners who are not high-risk and who want to keep out of trouble, actually increases the likelihood of the prisoner offending. They resent the 'second sentence' they are made to serve and fear being re-imprisoned for a technical breach of parole."
Far better, he says, to cut them some slack - take a positive approach, praise the offender for staying out of trouble, build-up their life skills and be on hand when they hit a roadblock.
"Bailey has been rated by the Department of Corrections at the lowest possible level of risk. Those who are close to him ... are unanimous in their view that he is very unlikely to reoffend on release."
But Workman accepts Kurariki may have to wear the bracelet. "I don't think it's necessary in terms of public safety but it may be necessary because of the publicity and the nervousness people have about him being released before his time.
"It means he won't be able to take up employment for a couple of months but that may not be a bad thing. It's going to be a huge transition for him."
Perhaps the hardest challenge for Kurariki will be the media glare. Branded the country's youngest killer, he became the poster child for anger at the spiralling cycle of violent youth crime. But it's worth remembering his role in the Choy killing: he was the lookout who gave the signal for the alleyway attack with a baseball bat.
Six others were involved: Alexander Tokorua Peihopa, 16, and Whatarangi Rawiri, 17, were convicted of murder and jailed for life. Philip Kaukasi, 17, was jailed for 12 years for manslaughter, Riki Rapira, 16, received nine years for manslaughter, and Joe Kaukasi, 15, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years for manslaughter. A seventh participant, 21-year-old Casey Rawiri was sentenced to 4 1/2 years for attempted aggravated robbery.
Their names are largely forgotten but the baby-faced Kurariki became notorious. His six bids for parole have been closely followed by the media - with Rita Croskery's pain laid bare.
"People have become convinced he was the murderer," says Workman.
What impact might this have on Kurariki's chances once he gets out? He'll be shunned by employers, neighbours, the wider community and wooed by low-lifes wanting either a share of his spotlight or to bring him down a peg or three.
Ironically, the media gaze is likely to ensure the resources are there to help him, at least for the first few months. Could he become the poster child for redemption?
"He just wants to be left alone by the media and victim advocacy groups so that he can live a law abiding life," says Workman. "He knows it's going to be difficult and that he needs all the help he can get."