Since April, prison numbers have been slashed 8 per cent and 800 people released. The fall is especially surprising as forecasts predicted large increases.
Critics warned of crisis if the Government did not build a billion-dollar mega prison. Yet at this rate, Labour would achieve their ambitious goal of cutting prison numbers 30 per cent in less than four years.
The Department of Corrections are leading the reforms. Their approach involves clearing internal barriers to prisoners' release: having staff help illiterate prisoners fill forms and make phone calls to arrange bail, for example, and delivering programs earlier in sentences to get them ready for parole. "It's all common sense," says Leigh Marsh, head of the departmental changes. "Really, really simple stuff."
The innovation is in the politics. Labour are stuck with a conservative coalition partner and struggling to get the necessary votes for legislative change, so are sidestepping Parliament all together. By working inside the state machinery they inherited, they are avoiding the public relations hit of trying to change bail or parole laws.
Yet they are also making trade-offs: locating reform inside corrections limits the scope and transformative potential.
Much of what is happening seems like a shift in styles of control, as people are moved from prison cells to various forms of electronic monitoring, intensive supervision and home detention. Three quarters of the 40,000 people managed by the department are already in the community.
The public face of change is the first ever Māori Corrections Minister, Kelvin Davis. He has a personal stake in the issue, including friends and family among the prisoners. People from his own iwi Ngāpuhi are incarcerated at 10 times the national average.
Now Davis is head of the whole system. And no matter how determined to make fundamental change, the tools at his disposal are various kinds of correctional control.
One favorite alternative is home detention. This is still a form of incarceration. It leaves family and partners caring for people who are stuck inside and unable to work or contribute financially.
The costs of confinement are transferred from the state on to usually poor families, and the burden of care placed largely on women, who serve the sentence alongside the men being detained.
As homes are turned into sites of detention, it raises serious issues about the intrusion of surveillance in New Zealand's most marginalised communities.
Some will insist it is a step in the right direction. And if you ask prisoners whether they'd rather live with their families and raise their children, even with constant surveillance and monitoring, they'd almost certainly say "yes". But it feels a bit like forcing a child to choose between being caned or deprived of dessert as punishment.
It would be naïve not to be suspicious of where these choices lead and what will replace our downsized prison system.
I never thought it possible to reduce prison numbers so sharply just by improving bureaucratic processes. Davis says the changes are still being rolled out nationally and there are more falls to come.
These are real achievements. But lets make sure it's not just an exercise in substituting prisons with other forms of surveillance and control.
• Liam Martin is a criminologist at the University of Victoria.