Calls for WA Government to stop locking up vulnerable people for unpaid fines

MEDIA RELEASE - 22 March 2016

Over twenty Indigenous and human rights organisations have signed an open letter released today calling on Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett to stop locking up vulnerable people for unpaid fines. The open letter comes in the wake of the ongoing inquest into the tragic death of Ms Dhu, a 22-year old Aboriginal woman who died in police custody after being imprisoned for unpaid fines.

Change the Record Co-Chair Shane Duffy said, “Today organisations from across Australia pay our condolences to Ms Dhu's family and call on Premier Barnett to take action. Aboriginal people have suffered enough as a result of bad laws and policies”.

“The surest way to stop further tragic deaths in custody, such as Ms Dhu’s, is to reduce the number of Aboriginal people ending up in prison in the first place,” said Mr Duffy.

Western Australia has the highest rates of Aboriginal peoples’ over-imprisonment in the nation, and particularly high rates of imprisonment for fine default.

“This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). The WA Government has had a roadmap for reducing imprisonment rates for almost 25 years. Now is the time for action,” said Mr Duffy.

Since 2010, one in every six Aboriginal people going to prison in WA was there to pay off fines and these figures are even more striking for women. In 2013 almost one-third of all women entering prison in WA were there for unpaid fines, and almost two-thirds of these women were Aboriginal.

“The WA Government has a choice - to continue its bad record, or take effective steps to begin righting these injustices for the next generation.” said Mr Duffy.

“Locking people up for unpaid fines is an outdated and unfair practice. Western Australia urgently needs to reform its fines system to incorporate work and development orders, similar to the approach NSW has taken,” said Mr Duffy.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations are best placed to deliver holistic services to their communities. As an immediate safeguard measure the WA Government should fund the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA to provide a custody notification service”, said Mr Duffy.

- ENDS -

Twenty-four  organisations have signed on to the joint call for the WA Government to take immediate steps to stop locking up vulnerable people for fine default. The open letter can be viewed here and below.

Media contact:  Shannon Longhurst for Shane Duffy - ph: 0409 711 061 / shannon@changetherecord.org.au


Open Letter: Stop locking up vulnerable people for unpaid fines
 

Dear Premier Barnett,
 

The coronial inquest into the death in custody of Ms Dhu, a 22-year old Yamatji Aboriginal woman, has shone a light on Western Australia’s concerning practice of locking people up for unpaid fines. Ms Dhu tragically died just three days after she was locked up in a South Hedland police station for failing to pay her fines. At the time of her arrest, Ms Dhu was in a domestic violence situation.

 

We the undersigned organisations are deeply concerned by the escalating numbers of people being imprisoned in Western Australia (WA) for fine default. We are particularly concerned at the impact of this policy on vulnerable communities, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and in particular women, who are already significantly overrepresented in the prison population.

 

The most effective way to prevent another death in custody, like Ms Dhu’s, from occurring is to ensure that vulnerable people aren’t being imprisoned for unpaid fines in the first place. A fine system which supports vulnerable and disadvantaged people to address complex underlying issues, would be far more effective for the safety and wellbeing of those persons and the community in general. Further, there is also evidence that domestic violence victims may be reluctant to report violence or seek help for fear of arrest or other repercussions. Governments should therefore ensure that such barriers to reporting violence are removed.  

 

We, the undersigned organisations, call on the Government of Western Australia to immediately commit to:

  • Stop locking people up for unpaid fines, by amending the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Act and introducing a Work and Development Order scheme, modelled on the effective NSW approach;

  • Retract any plans to introduce a compulsory scheme whereby outstanding fines may be deducted from social security payments because such a scheme will further seriously disadvantage vulnerable Aboriginal people;

  • Ensure the adequate provision of gender and culturally relevant early intervention and diversion programs, to address the current over-imprisonment of Aboriginal women and girls in Western Australia; and

  • Establish a legislative presumption against arresting victims of domestic violence at time of police intervention for outstanding unrelated charges.

 

Since 2010, one in every six Aboriginal people going to prison in WA was there to pay off fines and these figures are even more striking for women. In 2013 almost one-third of all women entering prison in WA were there for unpaid fines, and almost two-thirds of these women were Aboriginal. Staggeringly, between 2008 and 2013 the number of Aboriginal women locked up for fine default in WA increased by almost 600 percent.
 

More broadly, to avoid any further tragic deaths in custody the undersigned organisations also urge the Western Australian Government to immediately commit to the following safeguard measures, including:

  • Funding the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia to provide a Custody Notification Service;

  • Providing for a 24-hour on-call nurse in all police watch houses;

  • Expanding the role of the Inspector of Custodial Services to cover police watch houses; and

  • Independent investigations of police-related deaths.


Yours sincerely,

 

Aboriginal Alcohol and Drug Services

Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT

Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement

Amnesty International Australia

ANTaR

Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS)

Binaal Billa Family Violence Prevention Legal Service

Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (WA) Inc.

Federation of Community Legal Centres (VIC)

First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN)

FVPLS (Vic)

Human Rights Law Centre

Just Reinvest NSW

Justice Connect Homeless Law

Moorditch Gurlongga Association Inc (MGA)

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS)

National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC)

National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples

National FVPLS Forum

Oxfam Australia

Save the Children Australia

Sisters Inside

Southern Aboriginal Corporation

Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC)