After two days of debates in the state parliament's upper house, the WA government has passed the amendments to stop imprisonment for unpaid fines, a commitment made by the McGowan government when it entered office almost three years ago.
The Fines, Penalties, and Infringement Notices Enforcement Amendment Bill (2019) was first introduced to State Parliament last September. More than 200 people have been jailed for unpaid fines as the bill crept through the parliamentary process.
In a Facebook post, WA Premier Mark McGowan said the law as it stood never made sense.
“West Australians have been dragged through prisons for situations that simply do not justify it,” he said.
“It meant our prisons were put under pressure, and it cost WA taxpayers considerably more to send people to prison than the fines will ever be worth."
The issue of fine defaulting in Western Australia made international news in 2014 following the death of Ms Dhu who had been incarcerated for unpaid fines after local police attended her home in South Hedland for an apprehended violence order by her partner.
In 2016, a coronial inquest recommended that the justice system should stop imprisoning people for unpaid fines.
Last January, the issue again became a national talking point following a GoFundMe campaign by prison abolition activist Debbie Kilroy to help release Indigenous women, who were the most heavily affected by the law.
Over the past 17 months, the campaign has fundraised more than $1 million and has helped pay off "warrants of commitment" for more than 100 women.
High imprisonment rates
During the Lower House’s consideration, state Attorney General John Quigley highlighted the state’s high Indigenous incarceration rates.
“The tragic fact is that, in Western Australia, we imprison our Indigenous First Nation people at a 70 per cent higher rate than the national average. We imprison Indigenous First Nation people at a 30 per cent higher rate than the Northern Territory,” Mr Qugiley said.
“We were facing a tragedy in Western Australia,” he said.
The amendments passed include: a warrant for commitment will only be ordered by a Magistrate; introduction of garnishee orders to allow fines to be collected from salaries or bank accounts; and "work and development permits" for those people experiencing hardship affecting their ability to pay their fine debts.
Currently, there are four people imprisoned for unpaid fines and 1300 outstanding warrants for fine debts.
The bill has been forwarded to the Governor and following its enactment all 1300 warrants will be cancelled.