Anna Leask

Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Judges turn $200m in fines into community work

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

District Court judges have converted more than $200 million of fines into community work over the past four years in cases where offenders have been unable to pay what they owe.

But the total amount of outstanding court fines is now $637.9 million.

Figures obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act reveal that judges converted 654,300 fines into community work between the start of 2008 and January 31 this year.

Those fines, including court-imposed penalties and unpaid police and council infringement fees, totalled $200,612,000.

Last year 148,900 fines totalling $41,626,000 were converted, compared with 180,800 fines totalling $55,250,000 in 2010, 176,000 totalling $56,307,000 in 2009 and 139,500 totalling $45,017,000 in 2008.

In January this year, 9100 fines worth a total of $2,412,000 were converted.

Department of Justice collections general manager Bryre Patchell said an alternative sentence could be imposed for non-payment of fines.

"The decision to remit a fine, including reparation, with an alternative sentence such as community work is made by a judge or community magistrate on a case-by-case basis," he said.

"The decision to refer a fine or fines to a judge for consideration of an alternative sentence is made only when all possible attempts to obtain payment have failed, and when further enforcement action is unlikely to be successful."

Mr Patchell said that when a fine was imposed, court staff sought payment in full.

If that was unsuccessful, they negotiated a sustainable payment arrangement and used enforcement options where necessary.

"Enforcement options can include clamping vehicles, seizing and selling property, making compulsory deductions from people's income or bank account, disclosing overdue fines to credit agencies that may impact access to credit, and preventing overseas travel."

If those methods failed, an alternative sentence could be considered, requiring the offender to appear in court.

"To assist them in making a decision, the presiding judge or community magistrate is provided with details about the fines owing, the previous attempts and methods used to obtain payment and the offender's financial circumstances"

A sentence of community work requires offenders to do unpaid work in the community. Offenders can be required to do 40 to 400 hours of community work.

They can work up to 10 hours a day, or up to 40 hours in any one week and if they do not meet the requirements of their sentence, they will be taken back to court. Offenders convicted of breaching or not meeting the requirements face up to three months' imprisonment or a $1000 fine.

But Mr Patchell said the courts were working hard to ensure people paid their fines.

The passing of the Courts and Criminal Matters Bill, which came into effect last month, gave an extra incentive for offenders to pay, - as overdue fines can now affect a person's ability to gain credit.

"The court also works hard to ensure that the importance of paying fines and reparation remains in the public view.

"This is achieved through the 'pay the fine or pay the price' advertising campaign on television, through online advertising and by court staff being visible during joint operations with the police.

"The success of all of these initiatives has seen the value of unpaid fines and reparation owed nationally fall from $806 million as at 30 June 2009 to $637.9 million as at 31 January this year."

He said the bill had streamlined the debt enforcement process.

As well as affecting credit, the bill has allowed the courts to seize a wider range of property, and has simplified the payment process so that offenders can start paying fines faster with less paperwork.

"Subsequent phases will allow people to receive sentences of home detention or imprisonment for unpaid reparation and also that people could lose their drivers licence due to unpaid traffic-related fines or reparation."

FINE TIME

$637.9m of fines outstanding

$251.5m recovered in the 2010/2011 year

From Jan 1, 2008 to Jan 31, 2012

* 29,010 offenders have had fines converted

$200,612,000 of fines have been converted to community work
Examples

* Corey Vincent, 18, was ordered in the Tauranga District Court last year to complete 400 hours of community work in lieu of $8000 worth of fines.

* In 2009 broadcaster Mikey Havoc won a bid to have almost $40,000 in parking fines and court costs converted into community service. Havoc ran up $21,352 in tickets and a further $17,900 in costs added on by court staff trying to collect the debt. Havoc was told that his level of debt would normally result in 400 hours, the maximum level. However, Judge Heemi Taumaunu said he would waive the enforcement fees and order 230 hours of community service instead.

* Also in 2009 New Plymouth solo mum Zarah Murphy was sentenced to 250 hours of community work - which included the remission of $1235 in unpaid fines - for cultivating cannabis.

- NZ Herald

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