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Here’s our money, now let them go.

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.

Please donate to #FreeThePeople here.

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  1. David Bruce

    We seem to be back in pre-1788 UK, where the debtors prisons were so over crowded, many prisoners were confined to rotting hulks of ships on the River Thames!

    Have we learned nothing in the last 230 years?

  2. Florence Howarth

    Seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  3. pierre wilkinson

    So sad that we have descended to this once again barbaric and senseless racism.
    and if you look at those figures, it is mainly racist despite any claim of otherwise
    At $303 per day incarceration fees, the government could pay the very fines they inflicted by not jailing them for just 10 to 12 days: so why not do that, pay their fines and put them on a good behaviour bond not to get more fines, plus request that they perform the same amount of time doing a public service – even if it is just visiting the hospital to talk to patients or assisting at the kids footy days.

  4. Terence Mills

    In Queensland the State Penalties Enforcement Registry [SPER] can garnishee a court approved percentage of wages or benefits by issuing a fine collection notice (FCN) which I would think in most cases would avoid the necessity of imposing a custodial sentence on fine defaulters.

  5. Diannaart

    David Bruce

    Seems the ruling class have never strayed away from last jailing poor people unable to pay fines – for being poor. Any talk about equality from the wealthy and Uber conservative is mere window dressing to appear as if they are a part of the 21st century.

    Links can also be made between a country’s welfare system and rates of imprisonment: reduced welfare correlates with increased imprisonment. The association between increasingly punitive policies and the winding back of the welfare state in the USA and the UK is often noted. The USA has the highest levels of income inequality of Western countries, the Scandinavian countries the lowest. Scandinavia also ranks highest on social expenditure within Europe.

    Imprisonment is a political choice

    The form of democracy may also be important to political and community attitudes to punishment. Some commentators (see here, here, here and here) make the comparison of confrontational two-party democracies, such as the USA and Australia, with more consensus-driven democracies such as Scandinavian countries.

    **Majoritarian two-party systems, it is argued, tend to give rise to adversarial and punitive law-and-order politics.** By contrast, consensus-based models of decision making are said to prioritise compromise, making oppositional correctional politics unlikely.

    Clearly, the extent of the use of imprisonment is a policy choice by governments. Looking around the world it is now widely recognised that there is no direct relationship between crime rates and imprisonment rates. There is a clearer connection between rates of imprisonment and levels of social inequality.

    If crime rates don’t demand increased use of imprisonment, we must immediately reconsider our headlong rush to hyper-incarceration. If we were to learn from the international comparison, we would be investing much more in schools, families and communities, and much less in prisons.

  6. Shaun Newman

    Charity begins at home, and I am certainly more concerned about our people and the high infant mortality rate in our Aboriginal communities than some 16-year-old runaway from Saudi Arabia, and that’s for sure. I am concerned about the lives and the deaths of our people. Our citizens who are getting a raw deal.

  7. Shaun Newman

    Right-wing Labor government are nearly as bad as the tories, we have one in Qld as well not worth a cracker as far as supporting the poor people, all they are interested in are the so-called “middle class” who are only working class people with pretentious egos.

  8. Kaye Lee

    Thanks Eva. Done.

    We “walk together in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”. – Uluru Statement from the Heart

  9. DrakeN

    Charity – which originally meant caring for one’s fellow creature – has no specific locale.
    We can do so very much more to make the “justice” system a just one, and we can certainly show compassion – physical and moral – to our own and to those seeking help from the unjust behaviours of others.
    As a nation, we are materially wealthy; individually many of us are devoid of the ‘milk of human kindness’, keeping us communually in empathetic poverty with a consistent paucity of compassion.
    “Fair go” got up and went centuries ago.

  10. helvityni

    Thanks Diannaart for the link to the article on The Conversation. most interesting… Whilst there I also read an older story Nordic prisons less crowded, less punitive, better staffed.

    Few years ago the Dutch were offering their many empty prisons to the UK to rent and to fill…

    The Dutch prison officers were losing their jobs…by looks of it….

  11. New England Cocky

    There is no truth in the rumour that Joh is dead only word that he had moved to WA to install the 19th century.

  12. Kaye Lee

    Update on funding campaign: $108,163 so far

  13. RomeoCharlie29

    On SBS tonight, the Smith Family appealing for sponsors for children living in poverty in Australia. I think it said over 1 million. How is this possible in Australia in 2019? 7.30 reports on a huge number of elderly waiting up to 18 months for their aged care support entitlements. Again I ask how can this be happening in Australia in 2019? There is only one answer, a Government which governs for the rich, not those in need. A Labor Government must raise the Newstart allowance, and other welfare payments and pensions, it must do something to end wage stagnation and it must address the issues in Health and Education. Start by cutting back all of the tax rorts available to the wealthy, the miners, the banks and foreign companies. Also make it harder for foreign companies to buy Australian property and assets.And people Ned to be both encouraged and enabled to join a union.If necessary, get rid of thugs in unions who deter new members and give the Tories ammunition for their anti union rhetoric. I see they have pulled out Craig Thomas yet again, how long ago was that? Desperation.

    Eva Cripps, well done to highlight this issue.

  14. Aortic

    Are they still removing children from their households ” for their own good?”

  15. Kaye Lee

    Aortic, in greater numbers than ever before.

    Removing children from Indigenous communities ‘a national disaster’

    How much cheaper and more productive would it be to offer whatever assistance families need whether it be parenting classes, life skills training, rehab centres in regional areas, youth support programs, employment opportunities, neonatal nurses, refuges etc, than locking people up and continually using punitive measures against people who are already struggling.

  16. Stephen Gault

    I had no idea this was still happening anywhere in this country.
    Food for thought indeed.

  17. Carol Taylor

    Here is a recent (2017) link to something I learnt when I was studying criminal law.

    From the Australian Law Reform Commission: “One quarter of the Australian prison population is Indigenous, and Western Australia has the highest rate of incarceration due to non-payment of fines.

    From June 2006 to June 2015, 7462 prisoners were imprisoned in correctional centres in Western Australia. 38 per cent of whom were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander decent”.

    Unpaid fines include parking violations, public transport violations and other minor offences such in one lady’s case having a unregistered animal. Aboriginal people are of course not only massively over-represented due to poverty but are far more likely – in all areas of the justice system – to receive a custodial sentence. Yet racist elements would use such stats as ‘proof’ of the criminality of anyone who isn’t white.

  18. Eva Cripps

    $144,000 donated by caring Australians appalled at WA’s actions (and lack of action in changing the law). I hope this fundraiser embarrasses them into ending the draconian practice right now, but sadly they’ll likely take the money and obsfucate further.

  19. Matters Not

    There is a US national emergency – Bernstein explains.

    Short and to the point. Trump IS the crisis.

    The clock is ticking.

  20. Kyran

    Without wishing to detract in any way from the intent and purpose of the article, it seems only fair to point out that this mess was an inheritance from the Barnett government. This does not excuse for a second the delays in rescinding this racist policy by the ALP or their intention to ‘sneak in’ further punitive clauses in the ‘reform’.

    “A spokeswoman for the attorney general, John Quigley, said that legislation to change the law would be put before parliament by the middle of the year. She said the government took the issue “very seriously”.
    “The attorney general is committed to ensuring the quality and content of the statute book and he will introduce this comprehensive package of reforms as soon as possible,” she said.
    Quigley has also flagged plans to garnish the Centrelink payments or wages of people who do not pay their fines, a proposal that Kilroy said would further punish those too poor to pay.”

    Garnisheeing Centrelink payments is a regression of legal principles, just as the institution of a debtors prison was a regression. It should be noted that similar legislation on the eastern seaboard typically requires there be an element of fraud before incarceration of a debtor is entertained. As other commenters have noted, these aren’t little steps backward and it is unavoidable to say they are not racist when the victims of such draconian policy are, inevitably, our First Peoples. Like ‘The Intervention’ in the NT and the ‘Cashless Welfare’ saga, you cannot reasonably argue these policies aren’t fundamentally and inherently racist when they specifically target a community or a cohort.
    There is a name that features in the Barnett government at an early stage who is now a blight on the federal stage – the unChristian porter – who seems intent on rolling out his perverted beliefs on a largely unsuspecting public.

    One of our more highly qualified parliamentarians with no less than four degrees, he served his ‘pre-apprenticeship’ training with the ubiquitous, insidious Clayton Utz franchise, a veritable factory for LNP stooges and beneficiary of their cronyism.

    He was the Attorney General in WA when much of this folly was being ramped up, at the same time he was negotiating concessions with Brandis on divvying up the carcass of the Bond empire. He was the treasurer from 2010-2012, who oversaw the squandering of their mining boom and the resultant inevitable collapse of their GST income. Whilst he was not given the credit warranted, he was a significant factor in the Barnett demise.

    He was the one who ‘jumped ship’ in 2012, presumably knowing his house of cards was about to get knocked down by no more than a zephyr.
    His federal career was even more destructive, seeing Robodebt installed as a curse for anyone seeking no more than the obligation of their government, a fair go. He is currently presiding over the trashing of legal principles in his role as federal AG. Not just the installing of ignorant ministers absolute discretion, but cases such as ‘Witness K’, where legal principles are obliterated with tried and true legal chicanery.

    As always, the gullible, lazy, apathetic public are blamed for such politicians by virtue of performing their legal obligations, the act of voting. We must vote and, invariably, it’s a two horse race. Therefore, whoever is elected is our fault, even when they blatantly make decisions on a day to day basis counter to what they promised and demonstrably against the charter of ‘for the public good’.
    It is stories such as this that highlight this lie. How many instances are there where people ‘crowd fund’ to reverse a wrongdoing committed by their own government?
    You have rightly condemned the WA government for continuing what is bad policy. But let’s not forget where it started and those who started it. And let’s not forget that, until such time as governments and ministers, of either persuasion, are held accountable for their transgressions (other than the loss of their privileged positions and obscene entitlements at an election) by the criminal prosecution of their idiocy, there will be no change.
    Thank you Ms Cripps and commenters. Take care.

  21. Matters Not

    Re Christian Porter. His grandfather, Charles Porter was a Liberal MP here in Queensland. It’s in his blood as it were.

    He was the Liberal member for the Electoral district of Toowong in the Legislative Assembly of the Australian state of Queensland from 1966 to 1980 … 16 December 1977 – 23 Dec 1980: Minister for Aboriginal and Island Affairs … One of his two sons was Olympic field athlete Charles “Chilla” Porter, who during the 1970s and 1980s was director of Western Australia’s Liberal Party. His grandson, Christian Porter, is the Liberal member for Pearce in Western Australia in the Australian House of Representatives

    Ps – sometimes ‘racist’ policies can be very positive in intent and outcome
    – eg scholarships and the like.

  22. Diannaart


    Barnett is barnacle on the stone heart of racism. Without a doubt.

    Not excusing him, all his life has been one of inherent privilege. It is this generational privilege which is also one that has been judging others, the poor and, in particular, First Nation people as part of their paternalistic view.

    One could say Barnett knows not what he does. While ignorance is not an excuse, he is enacting a pattern of abuse that has been set since colonisation. He and his “class” need to be regulated far more than those unfortunate enough to happen to be born poor and/or black.

  23. Kyran

    Agreed, Matters Not, “It’s in his blood as it were.” In porter’s case, the medical application of leeches may be of some benefit to us all. Bleeding one blood sucking leech dry with another blood sucking leech may seem harsh, but it has a certain appeal.
    With regard to your second point, “Ps – sometimes ‘racist’ policies can be very positive in intent and outcome – eg scholarships and the like”, I disagree. If memory serves me, you have often made reference to the Gonski reforms, pointing out that what has been rolled out is not what was originally proposed, also noting that the disassembly is bi-partisan. Having to rely on scholarships, which only partially remedy such faults is, in my opinion, an unwarranted capitulation. What is wrong with going back to the original model and require the government to adequately fund the basics of education? Simply because they squeal ‘It’s all too hard’ is a most unsatisfactory reason to let them off the hook. As the old expression goes, ‘If you aren’t taking a piss, get off the pot’.
    It is also only fair to mention that, under the scholarship model, Australia’s greatest leaching leech is the role model, Twiggy Forrest. He has done as much as Hancock to not only profit from the deprivation of our First People, but to have the sanctimonious, unconscionable gall to ensure the deprivation is entrenched in every aspect of their lives. That he returns a fraction of his ill gotten gains under the mantle of philanthropy is truly sickening.

    His philanthropy was funded by his relentless pursuit of benefit at the expense of those he sought to make charity cases of. Scholarships don’t repeal inherent, systemic racism. They conceal it. Nothing – other than mushrooms – grow in the dark. I, for one, am tiring of being treated like a mushroom. It is interesting to note that the then PM, Turnbull, was also lauded for the charitable donation of his wages to charity. That it was his own charity was largely unremarked upon, as were the tax benefits and dubious recipients.
    That is before we even start on the idiocy of declaring that our idea of education is something that is worth replicating, let alone the ridiculous demand that a culture that has evolved over tens of thousands of years should assimilate with a culture that is falling apart after a mere few hundred.
    My reading on our First People’s cultures is not very good, but it is sufficient enough to know we would do well to emulate them, rather than vice versa. Their acceptance of the environment as a gift and their role as custodian is something we are furiously ignoring at the moment. How’s that going for us? We still see the environment as a commodity to be owned, with its use and abuse left to the discretion or preference of the owner.
    The little I have read on their education system is that it was a part of the culture where the young would be identified and assigned mentors and elders to be their instructors. Whether it be in what we call commerce, medicine, law, agriculture or the environment, their perception of education is as a life long pursuit, a commitment to teaching the young how to think. We are still floundering with an antiquated 9.00-3.00 child minding scenario with rote learning, with those that pass called genius and those that fail called stupid, a label many carry for their entire lives.
    The sooner we relinquish this absurd notion that we know best and start listening to our First People’s voices, the better.
    Natalie Cromb has written many articles, mostly over on IA. One in particular is well worth a read, coming shortly after Turnbull binned the Uluru statement.,10549

    “We are angry, we are sad and sometimes when we are voicing our emotions we struggle to enunciate the sheer weight of our situation but that is not an opening for the non-Indigenous to offer solutions, suggestions or opinions. Now is the time to sit down and shut up. To amplify First Nations voices in silent support by sharing our voices, join our struggle by speaking in our defence but never on our behalf. Recognise your privilege and use it to support our fight to dismantle the structures that reinforce it, with full knowledge that you are giving up some of your power so that we can claim ours.”

    “Each and every non-Indigenous Australian benefits from the special racism reserved for the First Nations population — one which denies our history, rebuts our voices when we speak against racist oppression now and implements policies to maintain the subversion we have experienced for over 200 years.
    Now is the time for you to own your place, move aside and let us claim ours with your full support. If you do this — you are owning your privilege and using it to smash the colonial system of oppression of otherness.
    We are strong. We have proven our resilience to still be here but enough is enough. No human beings should have to continue to contemplate the reality of living in racist Australia.”

    It is worth noting that the Uluru statement was formally released at the Garma Festival in 2017, which was attended by both Turnbull and Shorten. Neither of whom fronted the Garma Festival in 2018, and we are going backwards at an increasing pace. That’s a very long winded way of saying that, under no circumstances, would I accept that racism has any saving graces. To entrench paternalistic models, like scholarships, provides a veneer so thin it’s translucence is self defeating.
    I like the idea that we sit down, STFU and listen. Trying to make our First People fit into our broken model has had its day. It is a bit sad that sympathy for the plight of our First People is likely increasing because it has become the Niemöller scenario – what we have been doing to our First People for 200 years is what this government has ramped up doing to the rest of us over the past five + years. It is not as if our First People don’t know what they’re doing.

    And it’s not as if there isn’t any shortage of support.

    Or we can simply pretend that what we are saying is right, cause we’re white.

    I mean no disrespect Matters Not, but I don’t see such paternalism as anything other than that. To use it as an excuse for racism, or as an explanation for racism, is simply untenable. Just in regard to the fines issue alone, we have a government policy that is clearly wrong and a groundswell of everyday average Australians chipping in their little bit to voice their dissent. It has now reached $230k, and continues climbing.

    Heaven forbid this becomes a business model for the government. Incarcerate people for minor transgressions and effectively make them hostage to the better sense, sensibilities and decency inherent in most people. It is like putting the ‘scholarship’ model on steroids.
    Diannaart, they don’t just need to be regulated. Their actions can no longer be described as little oopsies, careless bookkeeping or incompetent negotiating. The likes of Barnett get trotted out every now and then for sympathy due to the loss of their career, Boswell gets trotted out as an example of how tough politics can be on these warriors – who risk their mental health. And Porter becomes a ‘how to’ for transition from a state gravy train to a federal gravy train. Why aren’t they subject to the same laws and punishments that see thousands of our First People incarcerated for what aren’t even crimes?
    My apologies for the rant, Ms Cripps. Take care

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