We have long known that police giving out fines for minor infringements criminalises poverty. The revelation that Walgett had the highest rate of public health order fines in NSW in 2021 was a stark reminder of the devastating impact of the over-policing of the community. While some of those fines have been withdrawn as they were found to be invalid by a recent Supreme Court decision, community members in Walgett still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Office of State Revenue.
The Dharriwaa Elders Group spoke out earlier in the year about the harm these fines cause in Walgett. As a response, Yuwaya Ngarra-li has established a Dealing with Fines project to help people have their fine debt written or worked off via a Work and Development Order (WDO). The Dealing with Fines team (see our profile of Bungee Dennis here) has started working with community members to reduce their fine debt through supporting them to access legal advice and signing up for a WDO, which involves voluntary participation in various activities including helping Elders with gardening, participating in art workshops and on Country trips, maintaining local parks, and running a community café.
To understand the level of fine debt in Walgett, Yuwaya Ngarra-li's Research and Evaluation team used Revenue NSW dashboards to obtain and analyse data about fines issued to people in Walgett postcode area (2832).
As shown in the graphs below, the number and value of fines issued has gone up and down over time but was higher in 2021/22 (993 fines issued) than in any of the previous four years. We found that the total value of fines issued in 2021/22 was $483,304, more than double the already large amount of $230,206 worth of fines issued in 2020/21 for a community of around 2000 people.
The number of fines issued by Walgett Police demonstrates what the DEG have been saying repeatedly in its advocacy about the harm caused by NSW Police during the COVID-19 pandemic:
The NSW Government made a big mistake for our community in tasking police to lead the local emergency response to this public health crisis. Police have a long history as an intimidating presence in Walgett, without a track record of building trust or communicating well with the local Aboriginal community.
Throughout 2020 and 2021 Dharriwaa Elders Group had, in good faith, been relying upon representations … that Walgett Police had the capability to use their discretion to appropriately enforce new powers afforded by Covid19-related Public Health Orders. We were also relying on information … that the majority of the community was complying with the Public Health Orders so believed that police issuing use of fines under Public Health Orders was not widespread.
However, the new evidence on fines data for Walgett contradicts this. What we know is that there is no evidence that the heavy use of fines has benefited our community or achieved any public health outcome. Now we must take precious resources from our front-line services to address the harm caused by the heavy use of Public Health Order fines in Walgett by police officers.
In August 2022, the total value of outstanding fines in Walgett was $1,198,459. Most overdue fines ($859,900) are over 2 years old. Around half of overdue fines are currently being paid off through Centrelink payment deductions.
Through Yuwaya Ngarra-li's Two River Pathway to Change program, the DEG has been able to take a decriminalising approach to these fines. This includes supporting individuals to have their fines written or worked off, providing information and options to community members and other Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, and holding government agencies to account.
Over time Yuwaya Ngarra-li and the Dealing with Fines team will be able to use the WDO dashboard to track the amount of fines paid off through this scheme in Walgett.