• Ms Dhu's death sparked the recent debates to change WA's unpaid fines law following the Yamatji woman's death in 2014. (AAP)Source: AAP
A number of advocates welcome the state's fine default reform bill, but say the next step is to have fines income-tested.
Rangi Hirini

18 Jun 2020 - 2:40 PM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2020 - 2:40 PM

Advocates have welcomed the Western Australian government passing a bill to reform the state's laws that incarcerate people for failure to pay fines, but said it has taken "way too long" for the changes to come. 

Lawyer and Noongar woman Megan Krakouer told NITV News she was pleased to hear the bill has passed. 

"It's incredible that it actually got over the line. There's been a lot of collaboration and partnership in ensuring that this very much became law - but there are a few things that are wrong with it," said Ms Krakouer.

"This is a poverty narrative, so how is a person on Centrelink going to be able to pay a fine worth $20-30,000? There's an issue in the sense of you have your fine but once it gets elevated or escalated it doubles," she said.

In a number of cases, more than 50 per cent of the total owed on outstanding fines are from penalties accumulated from missing payments.

Human Rights activist Debbie Kilroy has fundraised more than $1 million to pay the fines of 396 women, securing their release from jail.

"We've seen the tragic killing of Ms Dhu, who was arrested on one of these warrants for unpaid fines, where she died the most brutal death, horrific death on a cold concrete floor because she was poor and she couldn't pay off her fines," Ms Kilroy told NITV News.

"She did not have to die. She would be here today if the laws were changed nearly 30 years after the RCIADIC (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody) recommendations," she said.

Ms Kilroy said the campaign would stop when the Royal Assent is approved, which may take a week before the bill becomes law and the incarceration stops.

"This campaign is on the shoulders of Noongar elders who have driven this activism to change these laws for decades and decades and decades. They are the people that need to be recognised and congratulated for their activism," she said.

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Western Australia are jailed at a rate 70 per cent higher than the national average, with the state recording the highest number of Indigenous deaths in custody.

The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia also welcomed the new laws, CEO Dennis Eggington said the new laws would play a significant role in reducing the fracturing of Aboriginal families and even loss of life.

"There is no doubt that jailing people for unpaid fines disproportionately affected Aboriginal people in WA," Mr Eggington said in a statement.

"We have lobbied for change in this area for many years, so this news is greatly welcomed. Unpaid fines should not be a death sentence," he said.

The fine reforms were one of the recommendations made during the inquest of Ms Dhu's death, as well as a recommendation from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The amended fine default laws will see jail being the absolute last resort for unpaid fines. Work orders will also become more available, and the government can issue garnish orders to seize the funds from a debtor's employer or bank. 

The new laws will also prohibit the issuing of licence suspension orders for debtors whose last known address is in a remote area.

During state Parliament last night, WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister and Yamatji man Ben Wyatt said paying off fines through time in jail has been normalised for the state's Indigenous community.

"When the prison system is used as a way to pay off fines, inevitably it impacts on those most impoverished in our community," said Mr Wyatt.

"For many young Aboriginal people, time in jail to cut out fines was normalised, it wasn't something that was negative to their life. Because it became a part of life," he said.

The road ahead

Although advocates are pleased with the passing of the amendments, they said this is not the end of this campaign. 

National Coordination of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, Gerry Georgatos has worked for the past eight years on getting the reforms on the government's agenda. He told NITV News the next step in this battle is to have fines individually salary based.

"What we need is income assessed fines, so that they are of equal punitive value for all and they're affordable from the beginning," Mr Georgatos said.

Mr Georgatos said the reforms don't mean an end to people being jailed; it just means there will be more alternative options, and he is encouraging the WA government to do more beyond changing one law. 

"It doesn't mean an end to people in jail, it just means a significant reduction of people being jailed."

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