In Australia, the Debtor’s Prison Lives On

by on 25 November, 2015

Miss Julieka Dhu died in custody after being arrested for unpaid traffic fines

You may not be aware of this, but Australian law allows police to imprison you for failing to pay a fine. That’s what happened to 22-year old Julieka Dhu, who died in custody of septicaemia and pneumonia after being arrested failing to pay a traffic fine. In other words, these laws expose ordinary people to an unwieldy law enforcement system designed to deal with serious criminals. It’s no wonder they get hurt along the way. And it’s no wonder they fail to pay: the fines can sometimes be extraordinarily high, and public officials have previously admitted that they are used as a means of raising revenue for the government. So it is not surprising that some Australians fail to pay them in time or at all and enter into a spiral of debt. Poorer Australians, and especially indigenous Australians, are susceptible to repeated arrests for failure to pay these fines and risk mistreatment or abuse in jail as a result.

Miss Dhu’s case was particularly egregious. She suffered from septicaemia and pneumonia and was delivered to hospital in the back of a police car without a stretcher. That day while in prison Mss Dhu had complained of pain and numbness in her legs and vomited. She had also fallen and hit her head on concrete flooring three times. There can be little doubt that a person in that position would seek immediate medical help on their own if they were at liberty. Being in custody impeded her ability to seek medical help.

Complaints of police brutality or negligence in this case may or may be justified, but they miss this simple point: Ms Dhu would not be in custody if police could not arrest her in the first place. Only the government can imprison you for failing to pay a fine. Private creditors can’t do that if you fail to pay your debts. Their only option is to bankrupt you and divide up your assets between themselves. This is a humane, cost-effective way of dealing with debtors. Arresting a person for failing to pay their debts is costly because it means we need to pay for their imprisonment. It also exposes them to harm, particularly to vulnerable members of our society. It exposes them to dangerous criminals in prison who could harm them or pose a negative influence that leads to them a life of crime. It also renders them unable to work during their imprisonment, disrupts their employment and makes them less likely to be able to pay off their debts. It creates situations in which innocent people suffer. Our toleration of debtor’s prisons for unpaid fines must come to an end.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

One thought on “In Australia, the Debtor’s Prison Lives On

  1. This is a sad story – so what is the solution? Wrongdoing requires punishment or there will continue to be wrongdoing. You suggest that it is the vicious state imposed imprisonment that caused this, but how do you know she wouldn’t have died at home?

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