It’s 2019 and Western Australia is still locking up people for not paying fines. Of course this abhorrent policy barely affects the rich, or the well-employed, or those with financial security. It doesn’t affect those who have access to money, or for whom a $500 – $1000 slap on the wrist is just a matter of flashing the credit card or at worst, waiting until payday. No, it punishes people for being poor, for which $500+ becomes an unmanageable percentage of their income/benefit. And before long, that slap on the wrist becomes a prison sentence.
This policy, which Attorney-General John Quigley can stop right now, is disastrous for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community, those who barely have enough money to pay the rent, or buy food or nappies for babies. These are not violent criminals, or a threat to society. No, these people, many of which are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, cannot afford to pay the most miniscule of fines which have been meted out, not for grievous acts against person or property, but for basic regulatory offences which should never ever see a person imprisoned.
In Western Australia, every day there are approximately 8 to ten people in jail for unpaid fines. These are fathers and mothers separated from their children, vulnerable people separated from their families and incarcerated with prisoners when they have committed no crime. Of these, women are overrepresented, and 64% of the female fine defaulters are Indigenous women.
This is outrageous. And it must stop. Now. Not in six months after yet another review of a dire situation. Not tomorrow, when yet another two people have been arrested for not being able to pay their fines.
Today. Now. Attorney-General Quigley must act now and urgently put forward legislation to stop the abhorrent practice of jailing people who cannot pay their fines.
This isn’t a new idea. It isn’t something which the Western Australian government isn’t critically aware of, although the arrest and imprisonment last week of Indigenous actor and dancer Rubeun Yorkshire has thrown the spotlight on the issue again. It’s a policy which an entire coronial inquest report has recommended against.
In 2014, Aboriginal woman Ms Dhu died in police custody after officers failed to recognise she was critically ill after a rib, broken months earlier by a violent partner, became infected. Ms Dhu was in jail for owing a pitiful $3,622. It cost her life. The Coroner’s report noted that that the series of escalating consequences for fine defaulters, when combined with poverty, result in people being jailed without the safeguard of judicial oversight.
The Coroner recommended that the WA government should change the law and stop the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines. That report was handed down in December 2016.
And what has changed? Nothing. Not a thing. In fact the prison population is still growing, and Indigenous Australians are grossly overrepresented. A 2018 Human Rights Watch report found that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.”
Western Australia is punishing people for being poor. It is punishing people who have been subject all their lives to institutionalised racism. It is embedding a state-sanctioned punitive culture where those who are financially suffering are further shamed, humiliated and punished, despite having no criminal convictions.
Prisons are for criminals, not poor people. Prisons are places of punishment for those who pose a risk to society, not the victims of violence, like the Noongar woman who was arrested and jailed in September 2017 for unpaid fines after police were called to deal with a violent family member.
Attorney-General Quigley knows all this. In October 2018 he told media that jail for fine defaulters was an “economically unsound policy”. Jailing people costs money; approximately $303 a day per person. A person cannot “pay off” a fine through incarceration. It’s nonsensical and prehistoric. Quigley stated that jailing fine defaulters should be “truly a last resort”. This isn’t good enough, when “last resort” it almost certainly means a person has no other option but to give their life for a paltry thousand dollars or so.
And it isn’t good enough to promise to put forward legislation later, another day, another time. It must happen now.
The Western Australian government must act now.
But in the meantime, Australians who are appalled at the gross injustice of jailing people who have committed no crimes are stepping up. While Attorney-General Quigley hides behind bureaucracy, Debbie Kilroy, Executive Director of Sisters Inside, an organization which advocates for the human rights of women in the criminal justice system, has started a GoFundMe fundraiser with the aim to free 100 single Aboriginal mothers from Western Australian prisons.
It has raised over $87,000 in just two days.
This money has already been used to save a single Noongar woman, a mother of three children, from being imprisoned. The accumulated debt of $3100 came from traffic infringements and having an unregistered dog.
Attorney-General Quigley can put a stop to this draconian policy. He can put forward legislation immediately to end the discriminatory practice of jailing people for being poor. He can cease this barbaric action against the most vulnerable in the community. And he must do it now, before another family is torn apart and separated, by imprisonment, or death.
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