Thousands raised to free Aboriginal women jailed over debts


January 10, 2019 7:13 am
Stock image of barbed wire on top of a fenceImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Experts say the law disproportionately affects indigenous Australians

Campaigners in Australia have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help free Aboriginal women jailed for being unable to pay fines.

Western Australia is the nation’s only state that regularly jails people for unpaid fines, often on minor crimes.

Experts note the law disproportionately affects indigenous Australians, as well as poor and vulnerable people.

The state government says it plans reforms this year that will make it harder for people to be jailed.

In the meantime, campaigners have begun fundraising to pay for fines incurred by Aboriginal women, raising almost A$200,000 (£110,000; $143,000) since Saturday.

A government report in 2016 noted that Aboriginal women were the most likely to be imprisoned for unpaid fines, due to high levels of disadvantage.

“These are cases of very poor Aboriginal women, mothers living on the streets, in shelters,” said Debby Kilroy, from advocacy group Sisters Inside.

“They live below the poverty line so they can’t afford to pay off a fine.”

Ms Kilroy said they had helped free one woman on Wednesday who had been serving a 12-day jail stint because she could not pay A$2,300 in vehicle-related fines. The woman had previously been living in her car, the campaigner said.

How many people are affected?

Across all demographics, fewer than 10 people per month on average last year were jailed solely for unpaid fines in Western Australia, according to the state’s Department of Justice.

That is a significant drop from 2010-2015, when more than 800 people were imprisoned each year, according to the independent Human Rights Law Centre.

The reductions followed a backlash over the death of a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman in 2014, who had been placed in custody over an unpaid fine.

However, Ms Kilroy asserted that she was aware of 2,400 current outstanding warrants for unpaid fines across the state.

What is the campaign’s aim?

It is hoping to help clear the debts of at least 100 Aboriginal women who are either in jail, or facing incarceration due to such warrants.

The group has already settled three warrants this week using the donations.

“It has raised my hope in humanity in terms of people caring about Aboriginal women, who are the most marginalised in our country,” Ms Kilroy told the BBC.

What do authorities say?

The state government, elected in 2017, has said that by July it will change the law to allow only a magistrate to order jail time for unpaid fines. Currently, warrants can be issued by a fine enforcement agency.

The proposed change would ensure that imprisonment for unpaid fines “is truly a last resort”, said a spokesman for state Attorney-General John Quigley.

“This is something the government is committed to addressing effectively,” the spokesman said.

Last year, the Australian government’s annual report card on reducing indigenous disadvantage found improvement in only three of seven key benchmarks.

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