District Court judges have converted almost $100 million worth of fines into community work in the past four years when offenders have been unable to pay what they owe, but the Ministry of Justice says it is committed to ensuring the punishment remains a "credible sanction".
Figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act show that between 2011 and 2014, 463,993 fines totalling $97,274,512 were converted to community work hours around New Zealand.
Those fines included court-imposed penalties and unpaid police and council infringement fees.
The number and total converted have steadily decreased over that time, going from 159,201 fines totalling $38,040,674 in 2011 to 66,863 totalling $11,575,106 in the first 10 months of 2014.
Fines are generally converted to community work only when all other enforcement options have been unsuccessful.
The Ministry of Justice's collections general manager, Jacquelyn Shannon, said approximately $220 million was collected each year in fines and reparation - court-ordered payments offenders make towards their victims. About 90 per cent of that total was for traffic-related offences.
Ms Shannon said that although the number of fines converted to community work seemed high, it was decreasing each year - as was the total amount of unpaid fines.
"These sentences of community work are a substitution for the original offence and not an additional sentence for failure to pay fines.
"The substitution of fines for an alternative sentence is a judicial decision that is only considered when all other enforcement options have been attempted or considered, or in special circumstances."
Ms Shannon said the ministry introduced a new operating model in 2011 allowing better targeting of collection efforts and to take enforcement action earlier against people who refused to pay.
A number of "legislative enhancements" had also added incentives for people to pay up.
"Changes include judges having the ability to re-sentence a person to prison or home detention," Ms Shannon said.
An Offender Levy had enabled the ministry to collect $4.02 million to support services for victims of crime.
What is a fine?
It can be an unpaid infringement fee that has been filed in court for collection or an amount of money a person has to pay as penalty for a criminal offence (a court-imposed fine).
What happens if you don't pay?
The court can take action against you to collect the outstanding amount, stop you travelling overseas or arrest you. Your driver's licence can also be suspended for unpaid traffic fines and reparation.
Can anyone get their fine converted to community work?
No. An alternative sentence is taken only when all other enforcement options have been unsuccessful.
What are examples of community service?
Cleaning beaches, community parks and bush tracks, assisting foodbanks, schools and marae, helping councils with beautification projects such as the removal of graffiti.