The judge appointed to lead an inquiry into incarceration rates of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders says the jailing of people over unpaid fines is one area of high concern to him.
Judge Matthew Myers was appointed to lead the Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry earlier this month by Attorney-General George Brandis.
Myers says one of the biggest challenges the inquiry faces is examining laws and how they differ between states and territories.
He says they need to look at “what would really be useful in each of the different states and territories to deliver a better outcome where the laws have disproportionately affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
Judge Myers says jailing over unpaid fines, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, will be one of the areas focused on in the inquiry.
The incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – especially women – has come under stronger scrutiny following the death in custody of a 22-year old Aboriginal woman in 2014.
Ms Dhu was detained in a police watch house in South Hedland, Western Australia on unpaid fines totaling $3,622. Ms Dhu died of septicemia from a broken rib after three visits within 48 hours to Hedland Health Campus. Her family has faced a long battle for justice.
Family of Ms Dhu campaigned for justice in WA.
Among the 339 recommendations issued by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was;
“Governments which have not already done so should legislate to enforce the principle that imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort.“
According to the Human Rights Law Centre, since 2010 around 1,000 people are being sent to prison each year for unpaid fines in WA, and one in three women who enter prison in the state are there for unpaid fines.
In the five years between 2008 and 2013 the number of women being locked up over fine defaults rose by close to 600 per cent.
The ALRC inquiry will be able to draw up on reports, inquiries and action plans including but not limited to;
- the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
- Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration’s Inquiry into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Experience of Law Enforcement and Justice Services
- the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022
Judge Myers said the inquiry would be making “concrete recommendations”.
The final Terms of Reference can be examined in full here.
The ALRC is to complete its report by 22 December 2017.
The full interview with Judge Matthew Myers will be made available in our Weekly News in Review program.