Corrections minister Kelvin Davis has launched an audacious plan to reduce the prison population by targeting $98 million at the hardest inmates who commit the most serious crime.

The plan is aimed at turning from crime mainly Maori men aged under 30 who are serving prison sentences of between two and five years.

While an area of great need, it is also the hardest knot in the system to untangle which makes Davis' embrace and support of the plan bold.

Maori men in that group have the highest levels of recidivism and are most likely to be sent back to prison. It is not low-hanging fruit and aims to turn around the lives of those who would otherwise be society's greatest threat.

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"That's why we have targeted this cohort," said Davis. "These are the young fathers, the young dads … if we can help them become better people, better men, better fathers, better partners, then we will go a long way towards making New Zealand a safer country."

It is a push back against the enormous challenge of disproportionate Maori imprisonment. The prison population today is 10,048 of which about 51 per cent are Maori. Research has shown the prison population would fall by 44 per cent if Maori were imprisoned at a rate similar to Pakeha.

The issue is one which is personally important to Davis. He comes from the Far North which has a high Maori population. Children he taught as a school principal in Kaitaia, friends he grew up with in Kawakawa, are more likely to wind up behind bars than others in New Zealand.

The announcement made today was close to Kawakawa. Davis launched the programme at the Northland Regional Correctional Facility, better known as Ngawha prison. It will operate out of Ngawha and Hawke's Bay prison in partnership with Northland iwi and Ngati Kahungunu.

Davis said it was part of meeting the Government's target to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent.

Kelvin Davis says the $100m programme aims to impact on inmates from the moment they enter prison until long after they leave. Photo / Archive
Kelvin Davis says the $100m programme aims to impact on inmates from the moment they enter prison until long after they leave. Photo / Archive

The plan is founded in a kaupapa Maori approach to rehabilitation and does so in a way which makes whanau, hapu and iwi an integral part of the process. It begins when inmates go into prison and extends beyond their release with support from the Ministry for Social Development, Whānau Ora and partnerships with hapū and iwi.

Davis said it aims to be practical, in the sense it targets inmates when they need help rather than when the system is ready to provide it. And it is values-based.

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"We want high-security people, target them as soon as we can rather than let them work their way down the (security) system."

He said Corrections had designed the programme with Maori but it was not exclusively for Maori."

"It's going to be Maori values. So if there's a person of any ethnicity that says these values of manaakitanga (host, to care for a visitor's mana), aroha (empathy, love) and whanaungatanga (sense of family connection) are for him, then he's more than welcome.

"Maori just have lovely names for universal human values."

For Davis, who spoke to the Herald ahead of the announcement, it is a policy vindication of the speeches he has made on the campaign trail and even the motivations which drove his entry to politics.

"Since I've been involved with politics … I was always challenged I was just going to be part of the system and couldn't make any system change.

"Well, this is going to be a system change and in an organisation that for 170 years has done the same thing over and over again.

"What we have done for the past 170 years certainly hasn't worked for Maori. We've got to try something different."

Davis said the intent was "hopefully contributing successful people once they have left".

Corrections minister Kelvin Davis at last year's criminal justice summit. Photo / David Fisher
Corrections minister Kelvin Davis at last year's criminal justice summit. Photo / David Fisher

"The idea is to have fewer victims and if we can stop them reoffending, then we will achieve that."

He said the intense focus should not be seen as offering an easier ride to those inside.

"I'm not justifying their crime at all. The punishment for the crime is loss of liberty. It's what we do with them in that time which determines whether they are released as a better person or a damaged person.

"I certainly err on the desire for people to come out as better fathers, better husbands and partners than damaged people who go on to commit further offences."

Davis talks of visiting a Hawke's Bay prison Maori immersion unit where inmates spoke of the benefits of the programme - and their sorrow it was only for 13 weeks. It left him wondering "why there can't be a pathway through from the time they went in".

The other story Davis tells is of inmates who had experienced significant life change, only to return home and find the concept of a karakia before a meal to be foreign to whanau around the table.

He said it was a "lightbulb moment" and underlined the importance of involving family in the changes inmates were experiencing in prison.

Davis paid tribute to the support from Peeni Henare, Whanau Ora minister, and Carmel Sepuloni, Minister of Social Development. Each minister had provided funding from their ministry budgets.

"We're using the levers of government but we're engaging with whanau, hapu, iwi to get the best out of these government levers.

"It is system change and I'm very glad to be able to prove my doubters wrong."

• Total prison population at Ngawha prison: 623
• Maori prison population at Ngawha prison: 350
• Total prison population at Hawke's Bay prison: 668
• Maori prison population at Hawke's Bay prison: 457