WA passes laws to stop vulnerable people going to jail for unpaid fines
19 June 2020 at 2:45 pm
Advocates say these changes will reduce Aboriginal overrepresentation in WA’s prisons
Police in Western Australia will no longer be able to lock up people for unpaid fines after a Labor government bill passed state Parliament.
WA is the only state that has been regularly imprisoning people for being unable to pay fines, with 48 people issued arrest warrants in the past three months alone.
But following the death of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu – who died in police custody in 2014 after being locked up for $3,622 in unpaid fines – advocates have been pushing to remove the laws, which disproportionately affect Indigenous people.
WA Premier Mark McGowan said the passing of these laws this week will remove an unfair part of the state’s justice system.
“Western Australians have been dragged through prisons for situations that simply do not justify it,” McGowan said.
“It meant our prisons were put under pressure, and it cost WA taxpayers considerably more to send people to prison than the fines will ever be worth… It’s a system that just never made sense.”
Under the new laws, the government will be able to take money from people’s bank accounts, with imprisonment only used as a last resort.
The campaign to end the fines has been led by 24 community organisations under the leadership of the Aboriginal-led coalition Social Reinvestment WA (SRWA).
SRWA campaign coordinator Sophie Stewart welcomed the legislative action.
“Our old system was fundamentally unfair, made little economic sense, and punished most severely those who did not have the capacity to pay a fine,” Stewart said.
“We imprison these people at a cost of $770 a day, despite cutting out their fines at a rate of just $250 a day.
“Now that the legislation has passed, anyone currently in prison for unpaid fines will be freed, and existing Warrants of Commitment will be cancelled.”
The SRWA said in a statement that these changes would bring WA into line with every other state, and “reduce Aboriginal overrepresentation in WA’s prisons, generate economic savings for our state, and create a fairer justice system for all people”.
Carol Roe, the grandmother of Ms Dhu, said these changes were welcomed but came too late.
“My granddaughter, Ms Dhu, paid the ultimate price for these racist laws. She should be alive today – it’s been almost six years since she was killed in that police cell and not a single police officer or government official has been held to account,” Roe said.
“Mine and my family’s lives have been changed forever, we will never stop grieving. The government must end Aboriginal deaths in custody. Justice is long, long overdue.”
Shahleena Musk, a senior lawyer from the Human Rights Law Centre, said the WA government must not step here.
She said much more needs to be done to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody.
“The McGowan government, like all Australian governments, must show that it values Aboriginal people’s lives and implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice Report,” Musk said.
“These provide a clear roadmap for reducing the discriminatory over-imprisonment of Aboriginal people, including repealing mandatory sentencing and draconian bail laws.”
These changes follow the launch of a successful crowdfunding campaign last year to free Aboriginal women who have been jailed for unpaid fines.
This campaign – led by Debbie Kilroy from advocacy charity Sisters Inside – has raised more than $1.1 million and helped around 400 women to pay their fines.
In a statement on the campaign page, Kilroy said the campaign will continue “until Aboriginal mothers and their babies no longer languish in poverty across the country”.