MOUNT Lawley MP Simon Millman has urged Parliament’s upper house to pass a bill ending imprisonment for fine defaulters.
A 2014 report found the current law sends about 1100 people to prison a year for unpaid fines. While the fine is cleared at a rate of $250 a day, it costs $345 a day to keep them in prison. One in every three women who entered the prison system in 2013 was there for fine defaults.
The new legislation passed the lower house this week without dissent, the proposal being to release “all offenders in prison for fine default” if and when it makes it past the upper house.
But with the legislative council bogged down in debate and amendments over WA’s euthanasia laws, it seems unlikely any affected prisoners will be home for Christmas.
The new laws will allow people experiencing hardship to work off their fines through community service, work out longer-term repayment arrangements, or garnish their earnings or savings.
This is an edited extract from a speech Mr Millman delivered in parliament across November 13 and 14, when the bill passed the lower house:
“Imprisoning people without due and proper cause is something that we should not do. That is what our history tells us going back 800 years.
“This government’s vision is for a fairer criminal justice system.
“It sees us cracking down on meth dealers and serial killers. But our criminal justice system also needs to have the right degree of compassion.
“Our prisons should be for murderers, rapists and drug dealers, not for single mums from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to pay fines.
“In fact, the imprisonment of people for unpaid fines is, in my view, a failure of our justice system.
“People are being imprisoned without hearings or trials.
“In the list of concerns of the Aboriginal Legal Service, family violence is so much more pertinent when one has regard to the State Coroner’s report in 2016 in response to the death in custody of Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman who had been imprisoned as a result of failure to pay $3500 worth of unpaid fines.
“That is the price we are putting on a life—$3500 in unpaid fines.
“She was imprisoned for that and died in custody. She was a victim of family and domestic violence… the Law Society of Western Australia, that eminent organisation, in its briefing paper from April 2019, said: ‘The Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 (WA), has a discriminatory and disproportionate effect, leading to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’.”
Hillarys Liberal MP Peter Katsambanis raised concerns about offenders thumbing their nose at the criminal system, but said he’d follow party line and vote in favour of the bill.
But attorney general John Quigley said imprisonment was still an option, however remote.
“It is important that imprisonment be available as a means of enforcement for the cohort of debtors who have the means but not the inclination to pay—those recalcitrant few who thumb their nose at the system and accrue fines with no intention of paying them back, having ignored all other attempts at enforcement,” Mr Quigley said.