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By Brooke McKail.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 1 March 2016.
VCOSS recently published its 2016-17 State Budget Submission: Putting people back in the picture. It puts forward a proposal to allow Victorians facing disadvantage to discharge outstanding fine debt through voluntary work or agreed programs or treatments, to help prevent them experiencing spiralling debt.
Fines can have a significant and disproportionate effect on people facing disadvantage. Some people are more vulnerable to receiving fines, are more likely to accrue multiple fines, have less capacity to pay fines and can accumulate significant debt for unpaid fines.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to receiving public transport fines because they may not earn or receive enough money to cover basic needs such as food and rent as well as transport costs, but still need to catch public transport to meet daily obligations, such as work, training or job interviews.
People experiencing homelessness, people with mental illness and people living in poverty are also more susceptible to fines for public space, public order and public transport related infringements. For example, a service provider interviewed for a NSW report gave an example of a person with mental illness who had cut up all their identification while unwell and was then fined for not having a concession card on a bus. Another reported a person was fined for drunk and disorderly conduct after having an epileptic seizure.
Unpaid fines and infringements can further compound disadvantage. Outstanding fines can result in an accumulation of fine-related debt, making it harder for people to climb out of poverty. Unpaid fines can lead to people’s licence or car registration being suspended. This can have a significant impact on people who need a licence for work, study or caring for children.
Recent media reports have highlighted the growing number of disadvantaged Victorians facing criminal sanctions and large debts as a result of unpaid road tolls. Approaches to public transport fare evasion can also discriminate against people facing disadvantage, such as the $75 evasion penalty fare, which is only available to adults who have capacity to pay $75 immediately using a credit or debit card, while those who cannot do so are required to pay a much higher fare.
The state government can help people facing disadvantage with outstanding fines and debt by pursuing the outstanding recommendations from the Sentencing Advisory Council report, including amending the definition of special circumstances to include victims of family violence and people experiencing financial hardship.
The VCOSS State Budget Submission also proposes that the state government expand the Work and Development Permit system to cover infringement and enforcement stages.
The Work and Development Permit system allows people facing disadvantage to discharge outstanding fine debt by voluntary work or agreed programs or treatments. The system is based on a NSW model that has been found to deliver benefits including reduced reoffending, reduced costs to government and reduced feelings of stress and hopelessness among participants.
The current Victorian scheme is limited to the 28 days after an infringement notice is issued and not available once the matter proceeds to enforcement, therefore reducing its accessibility. Making the program more flexible and accessible at the enforcement stage will assist more people facing disadvantage to discharge their debts.
 Public Interest Law Clearinghouse, Disadvantage and fines, 2003.
 Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Fine but not fair: fines and disadvantage, 2009.
 The Age, Toll road fines: Ballooning debt turning motorists into criminals, January 7 2016.
 New South Wales Law Reform Commission, Penalty Notices Report 132, 2012, p. 9.40.
Brooke McKail is a VCOSS Policy Advisor