Hundreds of Australians endure the ordeal of jail because of unpaid fines, their poverty a burden. Disproportionately First Nations people are incarcerated ‘to pay off’ their fines. According to the president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, Ray Jackson 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. On Saturday, August 2, Ms Dhu was arrested along with her boyfriend, Dion Ruffin, and both were detained by Western Australia’s South Hedland police. They were to be released on Tuesday, August 5 but Ms Dhu died on the Monday, 48 hours into her detention in the South Hedland police lock up. Around noon on the Monday Ms Dhu was transferred from the police lock up to the South Hedland campus where soon after she was pronounced dead.

It is believed that Ms Dhu had several hundred dollars in unpaid fines, though a source said that it may have been up to a couple of thousand dollars but in any case this does not matter. No-one should be incarcerated for anything as minor as unpaid fines. The human rights award winning laureate, Mr Jackson said if recommendations from the Royal Commission Deaths in Custody had been implemented by Western Australia, Ms Dhu would not have been detained. Hundreds of people are jailed each year and criminalised for unpaid fines.

“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,” said Mr Jackson.

“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 lockup 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.”

Mr Jackson said the myriad social ills First Nations people face in Western Australia should always be taken into account – “the social problems of homelessness, alcohol, mental ill-health, the effects of institutionalisation and so much more.”

“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 parking fine of $20! 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, Ms 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.

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