“I thought I was going crazy,” Ms. Bropho, who is now 37, said of her time in jail. “I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t sleep.”
Social scientists note that an arrest can have cascading effects, particularly for poor women. If no alternative child care arrangements are in place, the Department for Child Protection may place children in state custody. Unpaid fines can also lead to the loss of a driver’s license, which in a state almost four times the size of Texas, can put one’s employment at risk.
John Quigley, the state attorney general, said he planned to unveil legislation this year that would “see no people go into jail for unpaid fines.” He called the current system “inhumane” and “stupid,” and said he was optimistic about the bill’s chances.
But for members of the opposition, the issue is not so clear cut.
Michael Mischin, a deputy with the conservative Liberal Party and the shadow attorney general, said that any changes must include an alternative punishment that demonstrates “that breaking the law and ignoring a court order carries consequences.”
Despite the government data, Mr. Mischin said the law did not discriminate against Aboriginal Australians, who he said had the options of not offending, paying fines or complying with arrangements to pay them off. Over all, he added, only a small number of people were affected.
Other legislators have also taken a hard line.
Internationally there are many countries, including Western democracies like the United States, that imprison people who fail to pay fines, though the practice has been challenged in the courts in America. Some countries, like Sweden, scale fines according to ability to pay and imprison only those whom the state deems to have willfully failed to pay.
In Australia, New South Wales was the first state to abolish incarceration as a punishment for fine defaulters after a teenager died in prison in 1987. Since then, the other Australian states have followed suit, leaving only Western Australia following the practice.