The imprisonment of fine defaulters in Western Australian prisons has been a contentious issue for some time. Debates have centred around the number of defaulters in prison, their impact on an already-crowded prison system, the cost of short terms of imprisonment for fine default, and whether the state is too quick to imprison fine defaulters rather than using alternatives. Very different views have been put as to the extent of the problem and the potential solutions, and the matter has generated political division.
The most important single finding is that while the number of people received into prison each year for fine default has increased markedly, there are few people in prison for fine default at any given time. This is because fine defaulters tend to serve very short periods in custody: their ‘turnover’ is high but their stay is short. The policy implications of this are clear. Reducing the number of people in prison for fine default will not reduce the state’s rising daily imprisonment rate because fine defaulters constitute only one in 500 prisoners. However, the flow of people into custody for short periods for fine default has increased markedly since 2008.
In considering future options, it is important to reflect on the justification for imprisonment for fine default. By definition, people who have been fined for an offence do not deserve to be in prison for their offence. In fact, when a court fines someone, it has explicitly ruled out using tougher options such as immediate imprisonment, a suspended sentence, a community based order or an intensive supervision order. In effect, imprisonment for fine default is imprisonment for non-compliance with a court order.
There is little doubt that imprisonment needs to remain as the ultimate deterrent for people who wilfully refuse to pay or to engage in other measures to work off fines. However, it is a costly way to tackle the problem, and one that imposes significant burdens on our already severely stretched prisons. We also need better information on how many fine defaulters really are truly wilful (in other words, they are able to pay but choose not to) and how many are genuinely unable to pay or to comply with options such as community work. The evidence presented in this report is limited but gives cause for concern, as Aboriginal women, and especially unemployed Aboriginal women, are the most likely to be imprisoned for default.
In short, the number of people in prison for fine default at any given time is small. However, it is incumbent on Government, working with relevant Departments, Agencies and the not-for-profit sector, to examine innovative ways to reduce the flow of people into prison for fine default and to reduce the social and financial costs of short term incarceration.