Uniting Church WA calls for an urgent end to imprisonment of fine defaulters

Rev Steve Francis, Moderator of the Uniting Church WA, today called on the West Australian Government to fast-track its stated intention to cease imprisoning people for unpaid fines.

Rev Francis emphasised that “locking up people who lack the funds to pay off fines is punishing people for being poor. Removing a caregiver from a household of children will only exacerbate the problems that family is facing – it is completely inappropriate and simply not good enough.”

Rev Francis was responding to a media story released today claiming that a 35-year-old Noongar mother of five was arrested in Joondalup on Wednesday, after a call was made to police about the visit of a violent family member.

According to the article in The Guardian, “When police arrived they performed a background check on the woman and found an outstanding warrant for $3,900 in unpaid fines, dating back to a dispute over an unregistered dog in 2012. She was taken to Melaleuca women’s prison and told that unless she could pay the outstanding fine she would have to cut it out at a rate of $250 a day.”

Mr Des Lawson, Chair of the WA Regional Committee of the Uniting Aboriginal & Islander Christian Congress said, “This response sends all the wrong signals. As a society we should be doing all we can to support people who are victims of violence, to assist families who are struggling financially and in particular we need to be improving the faith Aboriginal people have in the justice system. Instead, one of our families is punished after asking for help, and Aboriginal people are again left wondering how the justice system works for them?

“How can trust be built, how can we close the gap if we keep getting knocked down like this?”

Rev Francis reflected that, “We recognise that the police were simply fulfilling their duties, and in fact that points to the systemic changes that need to occur to prevent such perverse outcomes from happening.”

The Uniting Church WA supports the Social Reinvestment WA campaign which advocates for a change in WA’s approach to criminal justice, to move towards a more holistic, prevention-based approach that prioritises cultural, social and emotional wellbeing for people at risk of incarceration.

The Uniting Church WA believes that Western Australia’s high incarceration rate, particularly the persistent and growing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system necessitates an urgent overhaul of Western Australia’s policies relating to the criminal justice system.

Rev Francis said that it is time for a new approach. “All efforts should be prioritised towards reducing incarceration rates and supporting initiatives that prevent people from entering the prison system. It makes no sense to lock up people because they can’t afford to pay fines – it is expensive and counterproductive.”

Social Reinvestment is a holistic and evidence based approach to improving community safety, the wellbeing of families and individuals, and reducing the number of people ending up in prison. The approach is based on the three complementary pillars of Smart Justice, Safe Communities and Healthy Families.

Rev Steve Francis said, “A recent proposal that unpaid fines should come out of welfare payments is not an adequate solution. The rate of Newstart is already insufficient, leaving many people below the poverty line. We cannot make the situation any more difficult for the most vulnerable in our community. There are other options available.”

The Uniting Church WA has advocated for improvements to the West Australian justice system, including calls for an end to mandatory sentencing, addressing prison overcrowding and reforms to the processing of women, people with disabilities, mental illness and drug-related problems who enter the justice system, for more than 15 years.

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