Successive governments have been bedevilled by the multimillion-dollar issue of overdue fines. Routinely, they have pledged to find ways to make people pay up. Largely, they have failed, despite steps such as compulsory deductions from wages and benefits, preventing people travelling overseas, and the seizure of cars, boats and suchlike. The upshot is that the sum of outstanding fines at the moment is more than $700 million. While more fines are being collected, the picture remains bleak, and a record sum was cancelled last year. Inevitably, this raises the question of whether fines remain a credible deterrent. All the more reason, therefore, that many people will cheer the contents of the Government's Courts and Criminal Matters Bill.

The main thrust of the legislation, which is expected to become law early this year, deals with overdue traffic fines. People who have not made arrangements to pay their fines will be sent a warning notice telling them that if they do not resolve the situation within 14 days, their drivers' licences will be suspended. That situation will apply until they pay up or enter a time-to-pay arrangement. Clearly, this is the work of a government prepared to take a more punitive approach, a policy that is illustrated even more forcibly by another aspect of the bill highlighted in today's Herald.

This involves the provision that allows prison or home detention sentences to be substituted for "unaffordable and unenforceable" reparation. People with overdue fines could be ordered back before the courts and sent to prison, at a judge's discretion. Some people have six-figure sums of overdue fines - including the $1.8 million owed by an odometer fraudster now living in Surfers Paradise - so it is easy to see the temptation for such a tough response. Yet this is not a cogent or well-conceived approach, and it would certainly be foolish to push it too far.

At its core, it proposes to send more people to prison. Yet the country cannot simply increase the prison population endlessly. That entails an unsustainable cost in building and running prisons, whatever arrangements the Government may enter to leaven the expense. New Zealand already has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the developed world. Jailing a large number of people for relatively minor offences makes little sense.

Whatever its annoyance at unpaid fines and a widespread demand for a strong response, the Government's policy should be pointed more towards that adopted in Britain. There, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has announced plans to reduce the number of people being sent to prison. He believes, quite reasonably, that failed policies have resulted in the country warehousing petty criminals at huge expense and to no good purpose.

Fortunately, the Courts and Criminal Matters Bill leaves the question of imprisonment to judges. They are likely to take a sensible approach. The question of imprisonment should come up only for those who have accumulated a truly outrageous sum of unpaid fines and who show absolutely no appetite for paying up. The legislation gives judges the option of home detention. This appeals as a more valid alternative, even while raising questions about the resourcing of those who must oversee the process.

Indeed, similar questions of practicality and, to a degree, policing are raised by the suspension of drivers' licences. This legislation may well have picked out a valid target, given the ongoing problem of outstanding fines. But the Government has shown no capacity for coming up with a new, more imaginative and more effective approach.