Barnett's Petty Law And Order Policy Encourages Deaths In Custody

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On the same day that people around the country marched to protest the death in custody of a twenty-two year old Yamatji woman, news broke that a thirty-one year old Noongar man, known for cultural reasons as Mr Wallam, had just committed suicide in Perth’s Casuarina Prison.

His death marked the 340th Indigenous death in custody since the handing down of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. Mr Wallam began his sentence for aggravated burglary in May this year and was due to be released on parole as early as January 2015.

Mr Wallam’s death came shortly after Yamatji woman Miss Dhu, who was being held in police custody for the sole purpose of “paying down” around $1,000 in fines.

These deaths form part of a long history of avoidable Aboriginal deaths in custody. Recent examples include the 2012 death of an Aboriginal woman in Broome, who was arrested for drinking in a public place, and the death in 2008 of a respected Aboriginal Elder ‘Mr Ward’ who died in the back of a paddy wagon after being driven 400 kilometres across the WA desert.

The state of Western Australia has a particularly poor record when it comes to Aboriginal deaths in custody: 38.5 per cent of all adult prisoners are Aboriginal, despite representing just 3.5 per cent of the state population. 68 per cent of all young people detained in juvenile detention centres are Aboriginal.

In 1991 the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody published 339 recommendations in order to avoid future deaths. Several recommendations appear to have been breached by the relevant authorities in relation to the two most recent cases.

Recommendation 165 calls for the immediate removal of hanging points from prison cells, a point relevant to the death of Mr Wallam. In relation to the death of Miss Dhu, the following all bear relevance:

• Recommendation 87: Arrest only when no other way of dealing with the problem.
• Recommendation 92: Imprisonment as a sanction of last resort.
• Recommendation 120: Amnesty on the execution of warrants for unpaid fines.
• Recommendation 121: Sentences of imprisonment should not be imposed in default of a payment of a fine.
• Recommendation 128: Medical services provided to persons held in police watch-houses should be of an equivalent standard to that available to the general public.
• Recommendation 137: Careful and thorough checks of all detainees in police custody.
• Recommendation 161: Immediately seek medical attention if any doubt arises about a detainee’s condition.

WA Premier Colin Barnett has recently promised to reduce the number of Aboriginal people in prison. But his promise stands at odds with Western Australia’s current law and order policy.

Miss Dhu represents one of a significant number of Western Australians who are arrested and detained for the exclusive reason of ‘paying down’ unpaid fines, whereby a person is imprisoned one day for every $250 they owe.

Under this system the state does not recuperate any of the revenue it has lost as a result of the fines going unpaid – it simply punishes the person for being unable to front the cash.

It is believed that more than one in seven admissions to Western Australian prisons in the past four and a half years involved a person being put behind bars solely to ‘pay down’ unpaid fines.

Statistics tabled in the Western Australian Parliament reveal that 5017 cases of incarceration between November 2008 and May 2013 were the exclusive result of someone needing to ‘pay down’ their fines. These people had committed no other crime.

There were also more than 13,000 cases over the same period involving offenders being put behind bars for an unrelated matter who also elected to ‘pay down’ their fines while serving the term.

The policy obviously disproportionately impacts on the poor. For someone on Newstart ($303 per week), a fine of $1000 represents effectively one months income.

It particularly impacts poor Indigenous people and directly contravenes various recommendations of the Royal Commission, specifically recommendation 121, which states that governments should consider a defendant’s capacity to pay in assessing an appropriate monetary penalty and ensure that imprisonment is not automatically imposed in default of fine repayment.

In addition to being morally problematic (to say the least), it is hard to defend this policy on financial grounds.

The average cost of imprisoning a person is around $315 per day. This means the government is effectively spending $315 of taxpayer money to punish somebody for failing to pay $250 worth of fines.

Every day a person is incarcerated for this offence a $250 government revenue loss becomes a $565 loss.

The crackdown on unpaid fines and debt forms part of the Western Australia government’s ‘tough on crime’ approach to criminal justice, which has included recent moves towards mandatory jail for assaults on public officers, anti-association and property confiscation powers, minimum terms, reduced parole and enhanced sanctions to aid law officials in dealing with fine defaulters. It has forced the government to pledge a record $655 million to increase the number of prison beds.

Aside from the apathy of the WA goverment, the most troubling aspect of these deaths in custody has been the apparent ignorance and indifference of the broader Australian public. In past months the world has witnessed outrage in response to the shooting of a Black unarmed teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

In Australia, more outrage has been levelled at foreign investment in residential real estate than the death of a young Aboriginal woman while in police custody for unpaid fines of less than $1,000.

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