More than 250 offenders and ex-prisoners have been given a second chance with an Eastern Bay driving programme helping people off the pathway to prison and into work.

At a small celebration at the Kawerau Corrections office yesterday New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform Operations Manager Jenny Michie said 250 licences had been issued in the Eastern Bay since the programme was initiated in September 2018.

"These now-licensed people are people who were likely to never have obtained a legal licence because of the many barriers before them," Michie said.

Barriers, she said, included cost, poor literacy, no access to the internet, no birth certificate or knowledge and funds to get one, and no access to a legal vehicle.

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"We pay all costs including obtaining birth certificates, test fees and driver training," Michie said. "Our programme is voluntary rather than compulsory and our qualified instructors are firm with offenders that the programme is a privilege, not a right."

She said while nearly all clients were able to drive, they were not driving to road code standards. "We teach them how to pass the tests and average an 80 per cent pass rate which is a massive achievement for this demographic."

The Howard League works with Corrections to place offenders into employment once they have obtained their licences. Truck and motorbike licences are also offered.

East Coast MP and former Corrections Minister Hon Anne Tolley also spoke at the event.

Michie said New Zealand had the fifth-highest rate of incarceration in the OECD (up from seventh in 2012).

"We don't have harsher laws or longer sentences than comparable countries. We don't have worse people. But we do have incredibly high reoffending rates.

"Our incarceration rate is growing due to harsher bail and parole rules, the three-strikes law and the flow of deportees from Australia.

"Maori men make up just under 15 per cent of our population, but over half of our prison population. Two-thirds of their first sentence includes a driving offence and a staggering 5 per cent of jail sentences are solely for driving without a licence.

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"Once a sentence is imposed prisoners are extremely likely to re-offend and are likely to come out a gang member."

Michie said the Howard League programme cost about the same as keeping one person in prison for a year.

"We only have to keep one person out of jail for a year and the Crown has its money back," she said.

The programme is one of 16 Howard League driving programmes funded by the Provincial Growth Fund and NZTA. Nationwide the programme has achieved over 4000 driving licences and works with Corrections to place offenders into employment once they are legal drivers