Unpaid fines destroy lives with jail time

Issue 
Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated for unpaid fines.

Hundreds of Australians endure the ordeal of jail because of unpaid fines. Their poverty is a burden. Disproportionately, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are incarcerated “to pay off” their fines.

Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, says this “draconian practice criminalises people and destroys families and futures”.

Recently, “unpaid fines” cost the life of a 22-year-old Yamatji woman, Juliecka Dhu. Dhu and her boyfriend, Dion Ruffin, were arrested on August 2 and detained by Western Australia’s South Hedland police.

They were to be released on August 5, but Dhu died the day before, after 48 hours in the South Hedland police lock-up. That day, Dhu was transferred from the police lock-up to the South Hedland campus, where soon after she was pronounced dead.

It is believed that Dhu had several hundred dollars in unpaid fines, though a source said it may have been up to a couple of thousand dollars.

In any case, this does not matter. No one should be incarcerated for anything as minor as unpaid fines. Jackson said if recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been implemented by WA, Dhu would not have been detained.

Hundreds of people are jailed each year and criminalised for unpaid fines.

Jackson said: “The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendation 120 states that unpaid fines be waived if over five years old and recommendation 121 states that instead of imprisonment other alternatives should be sought.

“NSW has implemented aspects of these recommendations, but Western Australia has failed to reason the common sense within these recommendations. Had they reasoned the value in these recommendations, Ms Dhu may well still be alive today.

“Detainment in a police lock-up for me is the equivalent of jail, as far as I am concerned, in these unpaid fines matters.

“It is no secret that Aboriginal people in Western Australia endure the nation’s highest arrest rate and the nation’s highest imprisonment rate.

“The Western Australian government continues to ignore lessons that should have long ago been learned.”

Jackson said the myriad social ills Aboriginal people face in WA should always be taken into account. “The social problems of homelessness, alcohol, mental ill-health, the effects of institutionalisation and so much more,” he said.

“Implementing simple recommendations born two decades ago will help people and relieve so much unnecessary burden.”

Recently, a Cairns grandmother who had called police to report a break-in to her home was instead arrested for a two-decade old unpaid fine — a $20 parking ticket.

The Manunda woman, Dorothy Deshong, was humiliated. She said she had been unaware of a warrant for her arrest over the fine. Instead of police investigating the break-in, Deshong was forced into the back of a paddy wagon and held in police custody until the 22-year-old debt was “paid off”. The Queensland Police Commissioner has apologised for this incident.

Deshong should never have been carted off over a $20 parking fine. The unwell Dhu should never have been detained in a lock-up to “pay off” fines. Hundreds of people each year should not be criminalised over unpaid fines. Most of them are just poor.

[This article first appeared at The Stringer.]

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