Few areas of government activity strike a more visceral nerve with the general public than fines and financial penalties, whether it’s speed cameras, parking tickets or riding a pushbike in public without a bell.
With the state’s gaols now full to the brim, some senior New South Wales public servants are hinting that there’s a rethink afoot to revalue how effective the relatively blunt financial instruments really are in modifying undesirable behaviour.
Motoring enthusiasts and the tabloid media have for decades railed against what is perceived as a state-sanctioned revenue collection dressed up as law enforcement with politicians even campaigning to bring the most rapacious safety cameras back under control during elections.
But there’s a clearly now a broader policy debate afoot – within NSW at least – about how well fines work to deter offending behaviour among individuals and how they serve the community as a whole.
What’s a fair cop?
Martin Hoffman, the Secretary of the NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation gently raised the thorny issue of fines and their fairness during a recent speech to the Trans Tasman Business Circle in Sydney.
It may have been single dot point among many issues he canvassed, but what it revealed is that there’s now a more holistic consideration of the real impact – positive and negative – that fines have across government services and society.
“We collect a lot of money from fines,” Hoffman said candidly before floating a question as to what “a just fines system integrated with social policy outcomes” might actually look like.
An obvious issue – and it’s not a simple one – is what happens when a person gets hit with multiple penalties that then compound and effectively reduce their capacity to pay, leading to a cascading effect that potentially culminates in a custodial sentence from a court.
When fine debtors and defaulters do a stint inside, it’s the taxpayer that picks up the tab in more ways than one.
Mountain of debt
Hoffman raised the topic of fines that result in the suspension of a driver’s licence as a disincentive, but where individuals still took the risk of driving disqualified to try and stay employed sometimes because there may not be accessible public transport.
He also candidly acknowledged the overrepresentation of indigenous Australians in the justice system, noting that fines were a known element in the profile of interaction within authorities.
Stressing that it was still early days, Hoffman’s observations on the benefits of a more holistic appraisal of punitive instruments are certainly not before time.
One of the long term concerns, and not just in Australia, is that a proliferation of financial penalisation ultimately acts to erode public trust in the government, police and authorities along the lines of a ‘Sherriff of Nottingham syndrome’.
Drawing the line
Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this was the outbreak of violent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 following the police shooting of Michael Brown, an 18 year-old black male.
While the death provided the spark that ignited riots, it soon emerged a building source of community hostility was the role that an astounding level of fines, court fees and related warrants played as the second biggest source of city revenue, accounting for more than 20% of city income.
Although an extreme example, the lessons of the negative consequences of the over-application of penalties and are both stark and relevant in terms of social and economic development.
Legal reforms an increasing focus
On Monday NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman, Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight Melinda Pavey and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Sarah Mitchell unveiled an overhaul of the state’s driver disqualification laws.
The changes give police powers to confiscate the numberplates and vehicles of “repeat unauthorised drivers and those who commit certain serious driving offences” but they also give courts greater latitude for leniency in the case of demonstrably reformed offenders.
Specifically, courts can “lift the disqualification period for those who can demonstrate a commitment to lawful behaviour and who have been compliant with their disqualification period for 2 or 4 years.”
“Lengthy disqualification periods, which can currently exceed 10 years, are often ineffective, provide no incentive to return to lawful driving and disproportionally affect the disadvantaged, including Aboriginal people,” said NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Sarah Mitchell.