A “reflection of poverty and exclusion” has been removed from Western Australian law this week as the WA Parliament on Tuesday voted to end the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines.
Previously, the law stated that if a person was unwilling or unable to pay a fine, a warrant could be issued for their arrest where they pay off the fine in custody at $250 per day.
The call for these reforms arose following the 2014 death of Aboriginal woman, Ms Dhu in Port Headland Police custody for an unpaid fine of $3622. The coroner’s inquest into Ms Dhu’s death recommended that imprisonment be made a last resort for unpaid fines, with the Labor Party taking that commitment to the 2017 State Election.
Attorney General John Quigley said that the old system didn’t work for anybody and that taxpayers were paying to further entrench people into poverty.
“Under the old regime, it cost the State thousands of dollars to keep fine defaulters locked up. It simply made no economic sense” he said.
“There are people in our community who are experiencing genuine hardship and cannot pay a fine. They should not be further entrenched in poverty or forced into prison without any other options to pay the fine.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Ben Wyatt said in the final debate on the bill that the old system was a “reflection of poverty and exclusion” that disproportionately affected Aboriginal people in Western Australia.
“A lot of people I spoke with, mainly in Broome prison, were doing a stint inside to cut out their fines, which became a normal part of life. Every couple of years, they would go inside. It was not something that they worried about; it was a part of life. When the prison system is used as a way to pay off fines, inevitably it impacts on those most impoverished in our community,” Mr Wyatt said.
“I cannot help but reflect upon Ms Dhu. Ms Dhu was one in an army of people who have been in and out of the prison system. When I say “in and out”, every two years or so they would factor this into their normal way of life. We will hopefully see a lot of people being directed away from the prison system. That is something that I think all of us support.”
Shadow Aboriginal Affairs Minister Zak Kirkup said that the reforms represent a positive change and was happy that the bill passed through the Parliament in a bipartisan fashion.
This is an important step. Passage of this legislation will see a rapid reduction in the rates of Aboriginal incarceration,” Mr Kirkup said.
“It is an important moment in our state’s history. For some time, we have seen the rates of Aboriginal incarceration continue to skyrocket at levels that all of us think are absolutely unfathomable at times. With that, it is important to recognise the importance of what we are about to see pass through this place and is hopefully assented to at an expeditious pace.”