Indigenous woman to be released from WA jail after donor pays $3,000 fine

The 35-year-old mother of five had been given two weeks’ jail to pay down fine in move senator Pat Dodson described as ‘reprehensible’

An anonymous donor has paid the fine of an Indigenous woman who was ordered to spend two weeks in jail for unpaid fines, allowing her to be released from custody.

The donation came through on Friday afternoon after the court rejected an application by the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) to have the 35-year-old mother of five released from custody.

The woman was arrested at her home in Joondalup, Western Australia on Wednesday morning on a warrant of commitment for $3,900 in unpaid court fines dating back to a 2012 civil dispute over an unregistered dog.

She was taken to Melaleuca women’s prison and ordered to serve 14 days in jail to cut out her fines, at a rate of $250 a day.

The outstanding debt is now just over $3,000. A GoFundMe campaign raised $1,500 in just over five hours to support the family, and justice advocate Gerry Georgatos said a single donor from Victoria contacted him and arranged to pay the full amount.

Georgatos said she could be released on Saturday morning.

“We want to get this woman back to her young children,” he said.

Georgatos said all the money raised would go to the woman’s family, who had been supported by family, friends and the First Nations Homelessness Project.

The application by the ALS was made under section 53 (8c) of the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994, which states that the court registrar “may at any time cancel a warrant of commitment for good reason”.

Her lawyers argued the warrant should be cancelled to allow the woman to return home and care for her five children, the youngest of which is two years old and still breastfeeding.

The WA attorney general’s office separately contacted the Department of Justice on Thursday to seek assurance that the application would be considered, and told Guardian Australia this provision will be included in planned amendments to the act.

The Western Australian senator Pat Dodson said he was “terribly disappointed” that Aboriginal people were still being jailed for fine default and said that jailing a person in these circumstances was “just reprehensible”.

He said the WA attorney general John Quigley’s promise to put changes before cabinet by the end of the year to the legislation governing jailing for fines was positive, and the McGowan government should also allow people to pay off fines through automatic deductions to welfare payments.

“We’ve got to acknowledge that we are starting off a very low-income base,” Dodson said. “People are in poverty and they are being doubly penalised now and incarcerated because they don’t have capacity to pay a fine.”

Dodson said jailing a mother and taking her away from her children had “absolutely horrendous” consequences.

“That against having some imposition on your social security income is not contestable, in my view,” he said.

The Human Rights Law Centre director of legal advocacy, Ruth Barson, said it was inexcusable the law had not changed, more than three years after the 2014 death in custody of Indigenous woman Ms Dhu, who was jailed on a warrant of commitment for unpaid fines in Port Hedland.

Changing the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act to either completely end the practice of jailing people for fines or to ensure that such decisions are made by a magistrate was one of the recommendations of the coronial inquest into Dhu’s death.

“These dangerous laws should have been scrapped three years ago, right after Ms Dhu’s tragic death in custody,” Barson said. “Failing that, they should have been scrapped as soon as this new government came into power. There is no reason for premier McGowan to be dragging his heels”

The McGowan government came into power in March, four months after the coroner handed down her recommendations.

Barson said jailing people for unpaid fines was “cruel and indefensible” and “preventing deaths in custody, preventing injustices like this should be at the top of the new government’s to-do list”.

“Jailing vulnerable people like a breastfeeding mother simply because they can’t afford their fines is utterly perverse,” she said. “It compounds inequality.”

Amnesty International’s Indigenous advisor, Rodney Dillon, said the continued practice of jailing people for fines, which a 2016 report found disproportionately affected Indigenous women, was “a disgrace” and made WA an international embarrassment.

“As an Aboriginal person, as a taxpayer of this country, I feel very ashamed that they can do that to some of my people,” Dillon said.

Quigley told Guardian Australia that WA’s Indigenous incarceration rates “are scandalous”.

“As attorney general I am committed to addressing the issue of overrepresentation of Indigenous people in our state’s prison system,” he said.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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