OPINION -

Time to end jailing for unpaid fines

Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos work extensively in the suicide prevention space. Here they share their views on people living below the Poverty Line who have accumulated unpaid fines for which, in Western Australia, they can be jailed.

 

There is a discriminatory, classist struggle in this nation, where the unemployed, the underemployed, and the homeless can be incarcerated because they are too poor to pay fines.

This crisis is particularly evident in Western Australia. Although catastrophic numbers of those imprisoned for unpaid fines has decreased in the past couple of years, the problem remains that individuals can still be—and are—locked up in greater numbers in WA than anywhere else in the country.

To a reasonably minded person, it seems inappropriate that people can become unsentenced prisoners because of unpaid fines. In WA, people are locked up and remain that way until the slate is clean on unpaid fines.

Under the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 (WA), a person who defaults on a payment arrangement is issued an arrest warrant and can be detained at a rate of $250 per day until the fine is ‘paid’.

Recommendation 120 from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody stated unpaid fines should be waived if over five years old. Recommendation 121 stated instead of imprisonment, there should always be alternatives. This was in 1991.

We have campaigned since 2012 for an end to the jailing of people who are incapable, because they are too poor, of making payments toward unpaid fines.

This practice of immediate imprisonment, without presenting before a Court, for defaulting on a payment arrangement was put to an end in New South Wales in 1988, after 18-year-old David Parkin was jailed for unpaid fines. He had never seen the inside of a jail nor had he been in previous trouble criminally. Days after he was first jailed, Parkin was bashed to death.

It has been an exhausting campaign, years in the making, to win over the WA Government to at least consider an end to police watch houses and prisons being used to resolve unpaid fines as some sort of punitive measure.

Although the current Government committed to amending the legislation that allowed for these arrest warrants for unpaid fines, the Act is yet to see such an amendment enforced.

For the last three years, the State Government has dawdled its way to the tabling of the proposed amendments—the slowest burn imaginable.

The proposed amendments were finally passed in the Lower House earlier this year, however remain unheard in the Upper House.

In the meantime, thousands of impoverished individuals with outstanding warrants remain at risk of being arrested and incarcerated.

The amendments will be passed in time but how many individuals will see the inside of a prison cell for an effective non-criminal offence?

This is not the end of the story. We have been amongst the few who point to the fact that for far too many, some fines are unaffordable.

We know hundreds of individuals and families living below the Poverty Line who have been hit with fines in the thousands of dollars. These individuals are recipients of Youth Allowance, Newstart, Disability and/or Carer payments.

The majority of those jailed for unpaid fines who we have supported are on parenting payments—mostly single parents. If someone has only $500 income per week to work with to pay the rent, put food on the table and—where possible—pay the utility bills on time, are they going to pay a fine with the equivalent of a week’s or fortnight’s income? Or are they going to pay the rent and put food on the table for their children?

We are not calling for an end to the fining of individuals living below the Poverty Line, rather we are calling for income assessed and sized fines.

People living on the lowest 20 percent of income account for the most significant toll of suicides and most of the incarcerated.

During the last decade in WA, more than half of those arrested, locked up, or jailed were First Nations, despite comprising only two percent of the State’s residents.

In 2013, more than 1,100 West Australians were locked up for unpaid fines—600 of whom were Indigenous.

Our experience has found that, on average, the majority of those with unpaid fines carry an unresolvable burden of tens of thousands of dollars in fines. We have found that the actual fines, if disaggregated to the core fine or fines, are around $1,000. But within a year or two, the fines have accumulated to tens of thousands of dollars because of perfunctory late payment penalties, court ordered penalties and costs.

We know of one homeless individual who survives on a welfare payment of a couple of hundred dollars weekly but who has accumulated over $100,000 in fines because of this. Their original fines only totalled a couple of thousand dollars.

Currently, no model across the country is good enough. If we want a genuine fine repayment plan that is equitable and does not discriminate and disadvantage, fines should be assessed in terms of someone’s income. There are comparative models, but the model we should follow is that of the Scandinavian countries and in particular, Sweden’s.

In this way, fines will retain the deterrent effect and be affordable while not disadvantaging people to the point where they have no capacity to pay these fines. We must not remain a classist society, disadvantaging and discriminating against our poorest. We must not remain a racist society, where we level disproportionate impacts on our First Peoples.

Lastly, in addition to the call for income sized fines, we are calling on the WA Government to annul all outstanding fines of anyone living below the Poverty Line who are recipients of a Centrelink payment only. Alternatively, at least retrospectively remove all penalties and accumulated court ordered costs from the core fine or fines, so people can have the capability and dignity to pay them.

By Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos

 

Megan Krakouer is a Mineng woman from Western Australia’s southwest. Presently, Megan is the Director of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP) and also works as a lawyer for the National Justice Project.

Gerry Georgatos is a non-Indigenous suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. Among his academic qualifications he has a Masters in Human Rights Education and a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy. He is the National Coordinator of the NSPTRP.

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