What Mike Williams and David Seymour have in common

Mike Williams the CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform spoke at The Act Party conference yesterday. As an ex-president of the Labour party?and also their past campaign manager of four elections, I didn’t expect him to share any common ground with a party like Act. After all one of Act’s flagship policies was the three strikes legislation which is all about the stick and deterrence.

Mike Williams or Fat Tony as Cam has always affectionately called him, made a strong case for the power of volunteering where the cost to the taxpayer is zero. More to the point he illustrated examples where the cost of removing barriers was insignificant compared to the savings to the taxpayer when an offender was removed from both the justice system and the benefits system.

The barriers he mentioned were:

  • The lack of a full driver’s licence.
  • an inability to read and write
  • the lack of access to the internet
  • the lack of money to pay for a test
  • the lack of a birth certificate
  • the lack of a legal vehicle to sit the test

Williams explained that due to changes to our driver’s licence system a person who is still driving on a learners licence after 5 years automatically becomes an offender. A large percentage of prisoners are in jail because of this law change. Most of them didn’t get a full drivers licence because of the above barriers. In essence, our prisons are being filled with people who are breaking the law because they are unable to get a full driving licence because of the above barriers not because they are hardened criminals. It was a shocking fact to hear.

A programme he mentioned that was used in the Hawkes bay cost almost $100,000 but he pointed out that even if they prevented only one offender from going back to jail they would get their money back, such is the cost to the taxpayer of keeping a person in jail.

Williams said that over half our prison population cannot read or write. He finished his speech saying that Act is tough on crime but it also understands that you need to be smart about it. He then praised David Seymour’s new policy which he said he would let David Seymour tell us about.

It soon became clear that both men had a common goal and that being smart about helping offenders would save taxpayers millions. When left-wing parties want to do good they put their hand into the tax payers pocket but what Seymour and Williams were proposing would cost very little. Volunteering costs the taxpayer nothing and Williams and his League for Penal reform have many volunteers wanting to help but only three are currently inside prisons because of red tape that is making it difficult for tutors to mentor prisoners. ?One example he gave was how tutors are not allowed to work with prisoners in the evenings. Another was the regulations that prevent people from acting as volunteers and other prisoners from acting as tutors.

Act wants to cut the red tape and to reinvest the money from the savings by financially supporting non-government groups like William’s Howard League for Penal Reform. This time around Act is advocating the use of the carrot; what they call rewarding self-improvement. This incentivisation programme would also be applied to offenders who are willing to volunteer to help other prisoners. The incentives are simple, time off their sentence. The policy would not apply to the worst violent or sexual offenders. Prisoners would be able to earn a reduction of their sentence by successfully completing literacy, numeracy and driver licencing courses. David Seymour explained that participation would not be enough, they would have to pass the courses.

It is a policy that is good for taxpayers, good for prisoners wanting to turn their life around and more importantly it will mean that fewer New Zealanders become victims of crime.