Social Reinvestment WA, Coalition of 17 NGO’s, calls to stop locking up WA mums who can’t pay fines.
A Western Australian woman who made a call to police following a visit from a violent family member has been taken away from her five children and incarcerated for 14 days when a background check revealed she had an outstanding fine which she was unable to pay. Her children, the youngest still breastfeeding, remain in the home which has since had its electricity cut off.
This story is not an isolated one. Aboriginal women in WA are more likely than any other group to be jailed for unpaid fines often whilst unemployed and have no real capacity to pay. At just 3.8% of the population Aboriginal women are 22% of all people jailed for fine default.
Ms Dhu, who died in police custody in 2014, had also been taken into custody for unpaid fines- after police suspected her partner had breached a family violence order. The number of Aboriginal people in Western Australia imprisoned for fine default increased by 480% between 2008 and 2013.
It is a highly alarming trend that women who seek help from the police in incidents of domestic violence are being punished for unrelated occurrences. Social Reinvestment WA is concerned that violent situations will go unpoliced, leaving women vulnerable and scared to ask for help, for fear that they will be torn from their families.
Co-Chair of Social Reinvestment, Daniel Morrison echoed this concern, saying it is “incredible that we are still wasting the public resources when such crimes could be dealt with much earlier and effectively within the community itself! This poor lady was looking for support and protection by the WA Police for herself and her five children and ends up getting locked up herself.”
The absurdity of this practise is clear knowing the woman was allegedly determined unsuitable for a work and development order, which would have allowed her to work off the fine through community service, because she already had her five children, as well as her sister’s six young children, to care for.
Now her children are without their mother, and she has fears she will lose her Department of Housing home and become homeless upon her release from Melaleuca women’s prison.
A 2016 report by the WA inspector of custodial services found that WA has spent $42 million on imprisoning fine defaulters from 2006 to 2014. For every day a person is incarcerated for unpaid fines, $250 worth of unpaid fines is written off. Alarmingly, this option costs taxpayers $345 per day, whilst the amount of the fine is never recouped.
While fines can now be ‘cut out’ by serving prison time concurrently, community work for fines must be worked off cumulatively. This has created a situation where the length of imprisonment is less than the days required to serve a work and development order, essentially incentivising prison to those with very few choices.
Western Australia imprisons vulnerable and disadvantaged people who cannot pay fines at such an enormous expense without any tangible benefits in terms of community safety. SRWA calls for this practice to end immediately.
The solution is simple.
Mandating alternative options to imprisonment for fine defaulters would reduce incarceration rates. And amend the Fines Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 (WA) to allow community work sentences for unpaid fines to ‘cut out fines’ concurrently, in line with 2008 amendments to the Act which allowed the same for prison sentences. Alternatives such as this are already used elsewhere around the country such as the NSW Work and Development Order Scheme.
We need to keep kids with their mums, we need to keep families and communities together, and we need to put into practise Smart Justice for WA.