A First Nations father was locked up in a maximum-security prison in Perth over unpaid fines last weekend, in the latest incident concerning WA’s draconian fine enforcement laws.
Rocky Loo, 41, was on the train last Friday morning when he was picked up by police officers after a minor incident. The officers undertook a name check on Loo, saw that he had a warrant of commitment to his name and immediately arrested him.
Loo had $3,599 of unpaid fines for infringements and was unaware the warrant had been issued the day before.
He was sent straight to Hakea Prison’s – a maximum security facility holding most of the state’s major criminals – and was to be jailed for five days to clear the fines. On arrival, Loo was placed in Hakea’s mainstream population.
“I don’t even know if they used the custody notification service to let [Aboriginal Legal Services] know … like they’re supposed to,” said Marianne Mackay, Loo’s partner and a prominent Noongar activist.
Loo, who suffers severely from anxiety, said people imprisoned for fines shouldn’t be thrown into Hakea’s mainstream.
“You don’t have to be a criminal to get fines … If you’re vulnerable, you could get attacked quite easily. You shouldn’t be in that environment for fines, there should be another environment altogether,” he said.
A father of seven, mostly toddlers, Loo works full time to provide for his young family. Spending time in prison was not an option.
“I rely on the child support that Rocky gives me every week, he works every weekend. So, I had to go and get a food voucher … I’ve had to seek financial support as well,” Mackay said.
“It’s [also] the emotional and mental well-being of our kids. They’re used to seeing their father regularly.”
This sheds light on the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 (WA) which was set to be amended as early as 2015.
The draconian law currently allows the Fines Enforcement Registrar to issue warrants of commitment to directly imprison those with unpaid fines to settle their debts.
The Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Amendment Bill 2019 (WA) will remove this ability and be replaced by an application process whereby a magistrate decides whether a warrant of commitment is granted or not.
The Amendment Bill will also dissolve all unserved warrants of commitment and see the same-day release of those being held for fine default.
Although the Amendment Bill was endorsed in 2015, it only made it through the Legislative Assembly in September 2019. Western Australians are still waiting for the Legislative Council to pass the Bill in 2020.
Mackay said the State Government’s neglect to get the Amendment Bill through Parliament quickly was an indictment on the state’s level of care for those in poverty.
“Anything to do with … mob they consider criminals or people in poverty-related situations, they just take their time because they honestly don’t care.
“Yet look what happened this year, the first sitting of Parliament, they go and rush through [new fines for mobile phone use while driving] to $1,000. They pushed that straight through.
“What we’re talking about is locking people up that can’t afford to pay a fine, which accumulates because there’s no other avenue … it’s not sustainable.”
The National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP) assisted in getting Loo out of prison two days early by paying the remainder of his fines.
“My First Nations people who are impoverished should not be jailed because they cannot afford to pay fines,” said Megan Krakouer, Director of NSPTRP.
“The laws allowing for this, and only in Western Australia are these laws, have taken years to get the State to finally agree to them being changed, but the amendments through Parliament just drag on and all the while mothers and fathers, individuals, most of who are impoverished First Nations people, are jailed for their poverty.”
“It is beyond disgusting that the Government has taken three years on these amendments and they have not presented them yet to the Upper House. It’s discrimination because if it was their families affected there’d be outcry and reforms in a moment’s notice,” Krakouer said.
The Amendment Bill was on the notice paper for the past week’s sitting dates, however it was not addressed. The Legislative Council will next meet on March 10.
By Hannah Cross