Time for the Western Australian Government to scrap its policy of locking people up for unpaid fines

Western Australia’s Independent Inspector of Custodial Services released a damning report on Friday showing that Western Australia’s policy of locking people up for unpaid fines disproportionately impacts vulnerable Aboriginal women.

 The Human Rights Law Centre’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said that the Inspector’s report is another reminder that Western Australia’s policy of locking people up for unpaid fines is unfair and out of date.

 “The policy of locking vulnerable people up who cannot pay their fines should be scrapped. It’s a backwards policy, it’s a dangerous policy and it’s impacting most on Aboriginal women – one of the most vulnerable groups of people in Western Australia,” said Ms Barson. 

 “The Inspector’s report says that imprisonment should be the option of last resort and that the law should apply equally to all. Western Australia’s fines system fails to implement these fundamental principles,” said Ms Barson.

 Between 2010 and 2015, just over 800 people have been sent to prison each year for unpaid fines. One in every three women who enter prison in Western Australia are there for unpaid fines. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of women locked up for fine default increased by close to 600 percent. 

 In August 2014 Ms Dhu died in police custody after being locked up for unpaid fines. She was in a violent relationship with her partner at the time of her arrest. Ms Barson said that locking up women who cannot pay their fines entrenches gender inequality and is particularly harmful.

 “There are some people in the community – people living in poverty, children, people in family violence situations – who simply cannot pay their fines. The Western Australian Government should look to other jurisdictions and embrace a fairer fines system,” said Ms Barson.

 NSW has flexible options for dealing with unpaid fines including work and development orders that target the reason a person received the fines in the first place. It is reported that no one has been imprisoned for unpaid fines in NSW since the late 1990s.

 “The NSW justice system differentiates between those who will not and those who cannot pay their fines. Western Australia should follow NSW’s lead and implement a fair and flexible fines system,” said Ms Barson.

 For media inquiries, HRLC Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, 0417 773 037.