Reduce Indigenous incarceration rates in WA by abolishing jail time for fine defaults.
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Every year, hundreds of Western Australians are locked up simply because they could not afford to pay a fine. We see these cases regularly in our legal practice. In some instances, people don't have enough money to pay their fines and still afford food and shelter, so they have to choose between jail and homelessness or hunger for their family.
Most Australian states have eliminated or dramatically reduced imprisonment for fine default, but in Western Australia it remains routine.
This hits our Aboriginal communities hardest. From 2006 to 2015, a total of 3,301 Aboriginal people were locked up for fine default - not including those who served short sentences in local police lockups.
For example, earlier in 2017, an Aboriginal mother of five was jailed for two weeks, after police were called to her residence for assistance. This unyielding harsh response achieved nothing except to add to this family's list of hardships, cost the state money, and further undermine the already strained relationship between law enforcement and Aboriginal communities.
A third of men and two-thirds of women in prison for fine default are Aboriginal. More than half are in prison for unpaid traffic fines. Many others are in for fines for so-called “offensive” language. Of all demographic groups, unemployed Aboriginal women are most vulnerable to being locked up for unpaid fines.
In addition to being discriminatory, the practice is costly. Each debtor in prison costs the state on average $770 per day of incarceration. That adds up to between $2 million and $4 million annually, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Imprisoning people costs us even more down the track, because jail time often leads to further problems with a person's physical and mental health, income-earning capacity, and ability maintain good relationships. Those problems increase the burden on our social services and our communities.
There are better ways of dealing with unpaid fines. In other Australian states and other countries, work and development orders are being used successfully to allow offenders to work off their fines through community work, education or health treatment. This option is available in Western Australia, but imprisonment continues to be widely used. Imprisonment harms the individual and does little for society. Work and development orders can benefit both. This would be more fair, more economical, and more humane that sticking to our current model of debtor’s prisons.
Imprisoning people for unpaid fines has no place in the twenty-first century. It is a punitive, discriminatory and costly practice that we should get rid off once and for all.
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