• A 2015 rally in support of Ms Dhu. The inquest into her death has resumed in WA. (NITV)
Is WA criminalising poverty? That's the question being raised as the inquest into Julieka Dhu's death in custody resumes in Perth.
By
Julie Nimmo

Source:
The Point
14 Mar 2016 - 5:00 PM  UPDATED 14 Mar 2016 - 5:45 PM

Ms Dhu was 22 when she died in a West Australian police cell, while paying-down fines worth $3,622.  

In Western Australia, people who cannot pay off their fines through a payment plan, or through community work are sent to prison.  

According to the Human Right Law Centre, since 2010 around 1,000 people have been sent to prison each year for unpaid fines, and one in every three women who enter prison in Western Australia are there for unpaid fines.

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Julieka Dhu's death in custody: What you need to know
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Between 2008 and 2013, the number of women locked up for fine default increased by close to 600 percent.

“Many of the women being locked up have experienced family violence, and sexual assault. Locking up women entrenches gender inequality and is particularly harmful. It separates families. It often leaves children without a mother. It risks punishing women, we should be protecting and supporting,” said Ms Ruth Barson, the Human Rights Law Centre's senior lawyer. 

Aboriginal women who live in poverty are unable to service their debts as well as pay off fines, says Ms Barson.

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), states that the poverty line for a single person is $400 per week, but highlights that women are significantly more likely to experience poverty than men.  The median income for Aboriginal women is $278 per week.

Since 2000 the rate of female Indigenous imprisonment has increased by 73.7 percent compared to 38.6 percent for Indigenous males.

Women in poverty don’t have many options for paying fines. 

If you have no other option, and are willing to sacrifice your freedom for a stretch inside, the day rate to pay off fines is around $250 per day.

However, the West Australian Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan would not recommend it, going on the record saying it was inhumane to keep someone for days in a cell consisting of just a mattress on a plinth and a toilet.

Mr O'Callaghan said a different system for managing fine defaulters was required, including putting them straight into prisons where the facilities were designed for longer holdings.

Mr O'Callaghan said keeping people in watch houses for days was significantly risky.

"No facilities whatsoever. Nowhere to sit, nowhere to write, nothing else but laying on the floor for two, three or four days.  I think it is just simply inappropriate. It is simply not right."

Ben Wyatt, the WA Opposition Spokesman - and himself a Yamatji man - said on the National Indigenous Radio Service that, "locking people up to pay down fines is a terrible way to operate a justice system.  Ultimately its costs more to keep somebody inside, than the fines cost that they’re paying down.”

The West Australian Attorney-General Michael Mischin, told The Australian newspaper on August 2014 that:

“Aboriginal people will not get fined if they do not break the law,” he said.

The Royal Commission into Indigenous Deaths in Custody, 1989-1996, specifically recommended that:

“Governments which have not already done so should legislate to enforce the principle that imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort.”

The inquest into Ms Dhu’s death in custody continues this week.