• Peter Clark, a 69-year-old Melbourne pensioner, says he's helping because he can. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
Peter Clark, a 69-year-old Melbourne pensioner, felt compelled to help a Noongar mum, after reading about how she had been arrested for unpaid fines after calling the police to report a family violence incident.
Madeline Hayman-Reber

2 Oct 2017 - 7:18 PM  UPDATED 4 Oct 2017 - 1:13 PM

In the suburbs of Eastern Melbourne, pensioner and retiree Peter Clark lives a far cry from the rural and remote communities of Western Australia, yet he felt the urge to help a single mum.

The former tertiary design teacher was compelled after reading a story on The Guardian about a mother who had been jailed for unpaid fines.

“The story described the horrendous situation in Western Australia where a Noongar lady had been locked up for the nonpayment of fines to the sum of I think about $3900, and I thought that was absolutely shameful and disgusting,” Mr Clark told NITV News.

The mother of 5 had been seeking assistance from Police for a family violence incident, when they ran a background check on her instead.

Upon finding that she had an outstanding warrant for unpaid fines from 2012, which were in relation to an unregistered dog, they arrested her because she could not afford to pay.

“It struck a chord in me and I was incensed, so I decided to do something about it because I could,” he said.

“It struck a chord in me and I was incensed, so I decided to do something about it because I could.”

In order to pay the fines, initially Mr Clark had to investigate in which prison she was in and tried calling, but was denied because he did not know her name.

“I said [to the attendant] there’s an article in The Guardian today if you pull it up on your computer you’ll see it,” Mr Clark explained.

“How many Noongar women with five children of her own, and six children that she looks after, who’ve been arrested in the last two days do you get?

“And she said, ‘oh we get seven or eight a day’. I said, ‘are they all being locked up because of unpaid fines?’ And she said, ‘yes, and they’re mostly women’,” he recalls in disbelief.

“At that point, I just shook my head.”

But after much determination, he finally got through to someone who could help him, and paid the remainder of the woman’s fines, which after her two days in prison at a rate of $250 per day, meant there was $3376 remaining.

Now he is calling for change to the Western Australian system.

“It’s a national disgrace,” Mr Clark said.

“While we sit here in all our comforts in the Eastern states in our wealthy European environments, these practices are going on out in the regions in remote communities all the time at horrifying rates."

“The rates of incarceration and the rates of suicide in Western Australia… it’s just disgraceful, and our politicians with all their rhetoric, do nothing.”

Although Mr Clark didn’t speak to the woman herself, Social Justice Advocate and Crisis Responder Gerry Georgatos, thanked him on her behalf.

“I said that’s very kind of you, but the real heroes are the ones who work in the Aboriginal Legal Services and the groups that are in suicide prevention and also working to relieve homelessness in these communities,” Mr Clark said.

“They’re the real heroes. They have to deal with this stuff every day.”

Western Australian Attorney General John Quigley told NITV News although he couldn’t comment on individual cases, he labelled the current rates of Indigenous imprisonment as ‘scandalous’.

“As Attorney General I am committed to addressing the issue of overrepresentation of Indigenous people in our State’s prison system,” Mr Quigley said.

“Western Australia’s Indigenous incarceration rates are scandalous. They are amongst the highest in the country and the McGowan Labor Government does not shy away from this problem.

“The McGowan Labor Government has committed to introducing the Custody Notification Service and we are working through the coroner’s recommendations with a view to improving outcomes for Indigenous people in our community.”

Recommendations 6 and 7, which sit under the portfolio of the Attorney General are both under active consideration and Mr Quigley said he will soon be introducing changes to Parliament.

“I intend to introduce a package of amendments to the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 (WA), the effect of which will be to reduce the number of people imprisoned for fine default alone," he said.

“I have examined the approach taken in other jurisdictions in relation to jailing for fines and I will be in a position to bring forward a reform package to Cabinet before the end of the year.”

The State Government are continuing to implement reforms to the Sentencing Act of 1995, which includes alternative sentencing options for persons convicted of lower level offences.

The story is very similar to Ms Dhu's, a Yamatji woman from South Headland in WA, who died in custody of septicaemia and pneumonia from an infection in a broken rib just days after being arrested for unpaid fines in 2014.

Ms Dhu was also a victim of domestic violence and had called police for assistance.

Mr Georgatos is currently running a change.org petition to establish a Custody Notification Service in WA, NT, SA and QLD.

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