Campaign to free Aboriginal women raises almost $300K
By Probono Australia - A crowdfunding campaign to free Aboriginal women who have been jailed for unpaid fines has raised almost $300,000 and put pressure on the Western Australia government to change the law that advocates say criminalises poverty.
The campaign was launched on 5 January with the aim of raising $100,000 – enough to clear the debt of 100 women in Western Australia who have been imprisoned or are at risk of being imprisoned for unpaid court fines.
But as of Monday afternoon, the campaign has already raised $273,503, after attracting international attention.
Campaign organiser Debbie Kilroy, the CEO of advocacy charity Sisters Inside, told Pro Bono News the campaign now aimed to go well beyond the 6,000 donors they had currently.
“Originally the campaign asked people to give up two coffees in their week and donate $10 so we could raise $100,000,” Kilroy said.
“However less than two days later, more than a $100,000 was raised, so the target is now to hit 10,000 donors.”
WA is the only state that regularly imprisons people for being unable to pay fines, and ALP research in 2014 found that more than 1,100 people in WA had been imprisoned for unpaid fines each year since 2010.
Under current state laws, the registrar of the Fines Enforcement Registry, who is an independent court officer, can issue warrants for unpaid court fines as a last resort.
The campaign’s crowdfunding page said this system meant Aboriginal mothers were languishing in prison because they did not have the capacity to pay fines.
“They are living in absolute poverty and cannot afford food and shelter for their children let alone pay a fine. They will never have the financial capacity to pay a fine,” the page said.
Money raised from the campaign has already led to the release of one woman from jail, while another three women have had their fines paid so they won’t be arrested.
Campaign organisers are currently working on paying the fines for another 30 women.
The success of the campaign has put pressure on the WA government to reform the law to stop vulnerable people entering jail.
Kilroy said the current law criminalised poverty and she criticised the Labor government’s inaction on the issue despite making a pledge to repeal the law while in opposition.
“The government said prior to their election victory that this was one of their policy platforms, but it’s now been two years and nothing has changed,” she said.
“It’s just not good enough. It does not take that long to change the laws and so we’re calling on the government to change the law as a matter of urgency.
A spokeswoman for WA Attorney-General John Quigley told Pro Bono News the government intended to introduce a comprehensive package of amendments to the law in the first half of 2019, so warrants could only be handed down by a court.
“These reforms are designed to ensure that people who can afford to pay their fines do, and those that cannot have opportunities to pay them off over time or work them off in other ways,” the spokesperson said.
The Department of Justice has denied the campaign’s claim that single Aboriginal mothers made up the majority of those in prison who could not pay fines.
Departmental figures provided to Pro Bono News state that on 6 January, two females were held for unpaid fines, one of whom identified as Aboriginal.
According to the department, data suggests there has not been an Aboriginal woman in jail in WA for unpaid fines since the campaign started on 5 January.
Luke Michael | Journalist | @luke_michael96
Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector