The last state to do so, Western Australia has ended imprisonment for unpaid fines after a four-year campaign led by Social Reinvestment WA (SRWA).

Passing through the Legislative Council Tuesday evening, the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Amendment Bill 2019 (WA) was originally introduced by the Labor Party and was supported by the Greens, the Nationals and One Nation.

With the amendments now passed, anyone currently in prison for unpaid fines is to be released and any existing warrants of commitment will be cancelled.

Now only a Magistrate will be allowed to sanction jail time for unpaid fines instead of the Fines Enforcement Registrar.

“Our old system was fundamentally unfair, made little economic sense, and punished most severely those who did not have the capacity to pay a fine,” said SRWA Campaign Coordinator, Sophie Stewart.

Stewart said imprisoning people for unpaid fines costs the state $770 per day, but the fines they’re in for are only cut at a rate of $250 per day.

Other amendments to the Act include:

  • Establishing alternative options for disadvantaged people to earn off their fines through a Work and Development Permit Scheme
  • Stopping licence suspensions in remote communities for people without other ways to get around.

Aboriginal Legal Service WA (ALSWA) also welcomed the decision, saying in a statement the new amendments would “play a significant role in reducing the fracturing of Aboriginal families and even loss of life”.

“There is no doubt that jailing people for unpaid fines disproportionately affected Aboriginal people in WA,” said ALSWA CEO, Dennis Eggington.

“It had a devastating and fracturing effect on children, families and communities and exacerbated the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people, particularly women, in the justice system by criminalising the effects of racism, poverty and disadvantage.”

 

Death in custody the catalyst

SRWA Co-Chair Glenda Kickett commented on the adverse impact the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 (WA) had on First Nations people.

“Many people jailed for being unable to pay their fines were living in poverty, with women also adversely impacted,” Kickett said.

“Aboriginal people were significantly overrepresented in this group, leading to tragic outcomes.”

“Ultimately, fine default led to the untimely death in custody of Ms Dhu in 2014 in a South Hedland cell, detained by police for just over $3000 in unpaid fines. The findings of the coronial inquest into Ms Dhu’s death led to several recommendations which SRWA strongly advocated for,” Kickett said.

The death of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu in 2014 was a key catalyst behind the push for reform on the legislation, which allows warrants of commitment to be issued by the Fines Enforcement Registrar for those who have defaulted on their fines.

Ms Dhu, 22, died in Port Hedland after being jailed for three days for $3,622 of unpaid fines.

The young woman was taken to hospital three times during her incarceration and died from a septicaemia-induced cardiac arrest.

WA Coroner Ros Fogliani found in 2016 the police behaviour at the time was “inhumane” as they thought Ms Dhu was “faking it”.

As a result, Fogliani recommended legislative change to prevent imprisonment for unpaid fines.

Elders with a sign remembering Ms Dhu at the Perth Black Lives Matter rally, June 13, 2020. Photo by Hannah Cross.

 

Still a way to go

Lobbying for these changes for years, poverty researcher and National Coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP), Gerry Georgatos, said while he appreciates the amendments and the alternatives being implemented, there’s still a long way to go.

“It’s taken eight years and three governments and endless brokering to get to where we’ve got to,” said Georgatos.

“In the end people will still be locked up, just not at the rates and numbers in Australia in the last ten years.”

For Georgatos, the bigger issue lies in the unaffordability of fines.

“Court costs are hideously high and do not take into account … poverty,” he said.

“The fines are unaffordable and hopefully it doesn’t take another eight-year campaign to actually introduce income assessed and sized fines so the punitive value is of equal value.”

“We should also be retrospectively reducing all fines of those people who live below the poverty line or who are in economic hardship.”

Georgatos said regardless of whether enforced by a government agency or a Magistrate, people in poverty were still going to be locked up for defaulting on fines they can’t afford.

“We’ve got a lot more work to do before we actually say hurrah and hallelujah.”

The reform comes after at least 10,000 people gathered at Perth’s Langley Park to protest the treatment of BIPOC and support the Black Lives Matter movement.

By Hannah Cross