Colin Barnett admits number of fine defaulters held not known

An unknown number of fine defaulters continues to be held in “inhumane” conditions across Western Australia, including at the Pilbara watch house where a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman spent her last days cutting out a court fine and begging to be admitted to hospital.

While Barnett government figures show WA jailed 1358 people for unpaid fines in 2013 — many times more fine defaulters than other states — Premier Colin Barnett concedes the actual number is even higher but unknown. This is because data is collected only from jails and not from the country watch houses where many fine defaulters are taken to serve short terms, Mr Barnett told state parliament.

The woman known for cultural reasons as Miss Dhu was among those not counted in official figures. She was pronounced dead on August 4 last year, her third day in custody at the South Hedland police station where she was required to serve four days to wipe fines of $3660. In WA, defaulters serve out only the largest fine — in Miss Dhu’s case, $1000 — at a rate of $250 per day. The rest is cleared concurrently, creating a perverse incentive in WA for people to enter jail to clear big debts quickly. WA Labor’s corrective services spokesman, Paul Papalia, said: “(The Barnett government) intends only to appear to be doing something in order to avoid scrutiny. If they haven’t even asked how many fine defaulters are in police lock-ups, how can they address the matter?”

The Australian has been told the WA cabinet will this month consider a range of measures stemming from Mr Barnett’s promise in June to divert minor offenders, including fine defaulters, away from lock-ups and jails.

Police Minister Liza Harvey will unveil reforms aimed at the underlying reasons why people accrue but do not pay fines.

Ms Harvey said last night her government remained committed to “reducing deaths in custody and the over representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system”.

“We’re looking at alternative ways for offenders to cut out fines other than time spent in custody, including work orders and payment plans,” she said.

WA’s policy of locking up defaulters contrasts with the system in place in other states. In South Australia, legislation does not provide for fine defaulters to serve out fines as jail time. In Queensland it is a rarely used last resort. Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan has called the practice inhumane.

Paige Taylor, The Australian, 3 December 2015