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The Incarceration Issue

Do the Time to Pay the Fine

While you can go to jail for unpaid fines in most Australian states, it doesn't happen all that often. Except in Western Australia, where more than 1,000 fine defaulters are locked up every year.

by Hannah Scholte
06 September 2015, 12:00am

Illustration by Carla Uriarte

This article appears in The Incarceration Issue, a special edition of VICE Australia

While you can go to jail for unpaid fines in most Australian states, it doesn't happen all that often. Except in Western Australia, where more than 1,000 fine defaulters are locked up every year.

There, people failing to complete a repayment plan or Community Service Order (CSO) can be arrested, charged, and forced to "pay off" their fines in prison or police custody at a rate of $250 per day. To keep someone in custody, it costs the state around $344 per day.

Despite that arithmetic, WA has seen a huge rise in imprisonment for fine defaults, a punishment that's said to unfairly affect the poor, Indigenous, and women. A 2014 report by state Labor MPs states that in 2008, 194 people were jailed for fine defaults. By 2009, this number reached 666, and each year since 2010 it has been over 1,100.

According to the report, fine defaults accounted for one in six Indigenous people in prison. The same report also found that one in three women who entered jail in WA did so solely to pay off fines.

But is going to prison when you don't have the cash to pay fines such a terrible idea? A quick look at recidivism statistics is enough to tell you that yes, it is. In 2013, 61 percent of the state's sentenced prisoners were return visitors. And of those released from prison, 39 percent were back in custody within two years.

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