Government's plan slashes fines for people who can't pay

By Ruth Berry

Criminal offenders on low incomes face punishments other than fines as the Government responds to public anger at the number of fines never paid.

Alternatives such as warnings as well as lower fines and enforcement penalties are being considered for young and poorer offenders.

But the 35 per cent of fine defaulters who can afford to pay and don't are facing tough action.

They may be threatened with driving licence suspension and credit agency blacklisting.

Another proposal floated in a review of fine infringements is to increase the use of demerit points for traffic offences.

The Government is concerned that attempts to enforce payment are targeted at those who cannot afford to pay, and does little to encourage those who can.

It believes the growth in fines imposed but not paid over the past 10 years is undermining confidence in the system.

And it says the large number of infringement notices filed in district courts for enforcement suggests there are barriers or a lack of incentives to early payment.

One example of this is traffic fines imposed by local authorities, which go to the courts if the offender ignores the "ticket".

Under a quirk of the law, the local authority gets a much greater proportion of traffic fines once the money is collected by the courts - up from 50 per cent to 90 per cent of the fine.

The Government's concerns are detailed in a Cabinet paper which suggests a shake-up of the infringement system is likely.

Courts Minister Rick Barker said the review was complex because more than 100 agencies were involved in collection of fines. Rapid growth in the number of infringement rules and penalties was another concern.

He hoped a plan would be adopted "within 12 months".

The Cabinet paper says changes will impose more consistent monetary penalties and ensure they reflect the "social harm of the offence".

That could include limiting the fines that could be issued on any one occasion.

The Government is questioning, for example, whether two separate $200 fines should be issued for lack of vehicle registration and warrant of fitness.

District courts have to consider an offender's ability to pay when evaluating reparations, and the Government is considering whether agencies prosecuting for infringements should also have to take this into account.

Warnings and "rectification notices" are already available as alternatives to fines but are not widely used.

Increased use of rectification notices - which give people time to put right an offence such as having an unregistered vehicle - may be accompanied by penalties such as confiscation or impoundment of the vehicle if the notice is ignored.

Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar said the idea of slashing fines for young and low-income offenders was one of the dumbest ideas he had heard from this "whole warm, fuzzy experiment we are having on crime".

"It is going to create a society of the haves and the have-nots.

"The have-nots who have got away with not paying their fines will just continue committing crime."

But lawyer Catriona MacLennan, who works with low-income people, said today's system was inequitable.

"If you get a fine of $200 and are on a benefit or are unemployed that's a huge penalty to you, whereas to a middle-class person it is nothing."

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