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Australia is shamed by a horrific narrative on the disparity marginalised to the descendants of the continent’s First Peoples and it is ugliest in Western Australia. To the west of the continent, First Nations descendants are hit harder than anywhere else in the nation; the more west we journey across the continent the worse the hits and statistical narrative on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Western Australia is tough on the marginalised, on the homeless, on the most vulnerable and a disproportionate number are descendants of the First Peoples. Western Australia’s Aboriginal peoples endure the nation’s highest psychological distresses, culminating in the nation’s highest suicide rate. One in four of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides occur in Western Australia. Jailing fine defaulters is a look-in to what makes Western Australians tick and how they compare to the rest of the nation. Only in Western Australia are fine defaulters jailed. Nowhere else in the nation are fine defaulters directly led into prison sentences for not being able to afford to pay a fine.

In Western Australia, more than 1,100 fine defaulters were locked up each year from 2010 to 2013. More than half of those locked up have been the descendants of First Peoples. When peering from that racialised lens we find Western Australia arrests and jails First Peoples at the nation’s highest rate but also at the world’s highest rate. After a significant turn of attention by advocates and media to Western Australia’s jail rates and to the obscene jailing of fine defaulters, in the last year Western Australia has jailed less fine defaulters than usual.

During 2014, Western Australia jailed a little over 600 people for fine defaulting, less than 50 per cent its usual haul. In previous years, fine defaulters constituted a fifth of the Western Australian prison population. In 2013, fine defaulters constituted one quarter the prison population.

The wealthy can pay off fines, the extremely poor not so easily. Is there a level of classism entrenched? Fines are a significant source of revenue for governments – with hundreds of millions scored from motorists each year. And chasing debt is a bent by institutions. However Western Australia continues as the only jurisdiction in the nation that justifies jailing fine defaulters, as if we are still in Victorian Britain with their Debtors Prisons. Western Australia throws people into prison with the angry and hardened criminals. In 1987 in NSW, 18 year old Jamie Partlic was sentenced to four days jail for being unable to pay fines. He was dumped into Long Bay Prison. He was bashed and instead of spending four days in prison he spent six months in a coma. The NSW Government put an end to jailing fine defaulters. But 27 years later Western Australia continues on as a backwater, arguing that punishment is a deterrent.

It is not a perfect world in the rest of the nation where outside the protection of bankruptcy your life can still be made some sort of hell by governments and institutions chasing down the payment of fines. In the end your driver’s license can be cancelled, your money taken from your bank account or garnished from your wages or you are summoned to court. It’s even worse hell being jailed. Jail is the blow-in solution for Western Australia. The poor and mentally unwell are not criminally minded and should not be railroaded into jail. In general it has been my experience that people come out of prison worse than when they went in. We should be doing everything we can to keep people out of the prison experience.

I am sick of the economic imperative arguments but it costs $350 a day to keep someone in jail. Fine defaulters are jailed on the basis that $250 a day is being wiped off their debt. Governments and institutions lose their prized quid from failing to collect the fines and instead dish out their anger on the poor and troubled with a stint in jail, but as a result run an economic deficit model at effectively minus $600 per day. What genius figured this model? On top of that they expose people who would likely never have committed a serious or violent crime to hardened criminality. Western Australians wonder what’s driving the incarceration and reoffending rates!

One in six Aboriginal prisoners in Western Australia is sentenced for a fine default. One in three female Aboriginal prisoners is a fine defaulter. Overall, 27 per cent of all women in Western Australian prisons in 2013 were fine defaulters, as opposed to less than 5 per cent in 2008. One fifth of Aboriginal prisoners are fine defaulters as opposed to 3 per cent in 2008. So there you go, you can see one of the significant drivers of the high incarceration rate of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in Western Australia. The increase in the jailing of women in Western Australia for fine defaults is directly responsible for the significant rise in numbers of women prisoners – up 80 per cent overall since 2010. What of the effects on the family with the mother gone to jail – and the likelihood of family dysfunction and disintegration?

Community service orders, if not ideal, are a preferable alternative to imprisonment. To supervise a community service order costs around $50 a day as opposed to the $350 per day jail cost.

According to the Locking in Poverty Report, the number of Aboriginal women jailed for fine default soared by nearly 600 per cent since 2008. The State has hit fine defaulters since 2008. In 2008, 194 adults were sentenced in Western Australia for fine defaults, but in 2009 the number of adults sentenced more than tripled to 666 and then more than doubled to 1,613 in 2010, with 1,358 in 2013. It’s a dangerous gamble to incarcerate people period, with over 60 per cent of the Western Australian prison population reoffenders.

One of the morals to this story is we must not continue to entrench inequality. We must not make criminals of the poor. The system is already geared to punish hardest the poorest and we must do everything we can to redress. Western Australia is the last backwater bastion of locking up fine defaulters. In 1987, Partlic lost his life due to his inability to pay a fine. This stung NSW into a reasonable response. In 2014, Ms Dhu lost her life in a Western Australian police watch house, locked up for fine defaults. Western Australians are waiting for the only logical response.


–          Declaration of impartiality conflict – Gerry Georgatos, a suicide prevention researcher and prison/custodial systems reform advocate, has lobbied the State and Federal Governments for the Custody Notification Service and alternatives to the jailing of people for fine defaulting.