Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh argues there is a better way for governments to manage the onerous, expensive and often self-defeating process of jailing people who fail to pay their fines.
Reforming fine and penalty processes to make offenders pay
Imagine if you owed the government money, and to teach you a lesson, the government decided to spend a few thousand dollars on you.
Wouldn’t make much sense, would it? Yet right now, that’s happening across Australia, with states and territories spending up to $770 per day per offender locking up people for unpaid fines.
Sentencing fine defaulters to time in prison puts unnecessary strains on government budgets and the community. Law-abiding taxpayers have to pony up to build and maintain prisons.
People with unpaid fines can pay them off by going into jail on Friday afternoon and coming out on Monday morning with a clean slate.
Because many prisoners re-offend, locking up fine defaulters can lead to higher crime rates down the track.
Labor believes there is a better way.
Last week, Mark Dreyfus, Shayne Neumann and I announced that a Shorten Labor government would make sure those with outstanding fines pay the money by letting states and territories use the tax and social security system to recover unpaid fines through a fine enforcement collection scheme.
Using the tax system to collect debts is well-established – the best known example is the HECS-HELPsystem for university students. Similarly, in the case of unpaid child support, the federal government uses the tax system to recover unpaid debts.
These reforms would restore the credibility of fines as a criminal penalty, ensuring offenders work to “pay off their debt to society”, and free police, prison and community corrections resources to their primary activity.
By the end of this year, Australia is likely to have 40,000 people behind bars. We now jail 196 in every 100,000 adults – the highest imprisonment rate in over a century.
Adjusted for age, the Indigenous incarceration rate is 15 times higher.
A significant number of Australian prisoners are behind bars because of unpaid fines. High – and growing – incarceration rates don’t just put strain on government budgets, but on our community.
For example, in Western Australia, the number of people in prison for unpaid fines has soared 600 per cent over the last five years.
Each year, Western Australia jails at least 1100 fine defaulters.
Approximately half are Aboriginal people. Two years ago, Ms Dhu, a 22-year old incarcerated for a $1000 unpaid fine, died in a Western Australian police lock-up.
The best way to be tough on crime is by being smart on crime.
The current system makes taxpayers pay to lock up fine defaulters.
Under the fine enforcement collection scheme, fine defaulters will pay their fines, taxpayers will save money, and we’ll reduce our jail population.