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JOONDALUP, Australia — When the police arrived at Naomi Bropho’s door in Western Australia in late 2017, she was relieved. Her brother, in an agitated rage, was on his way to her home, and her mother had called them to protect her.
Instead, the police handcuffed Ms. Bropho.
Ms. Bropho, a 35-year-old Noongar woman, was stunned. She had five children at home, she pleaded, one of whom was still breast-feeding.
“You’ve got no choice, ” she recalls an officer telling her. A warrant was out for her arrest: Ms. Bropho had racked up 3,900 Australian dollars ($2,800) in fines, court costs and interest for her dog, which local rangers said had bitten someone several years earlier.
In the past decade, officials in Western Australia have sent thousands of people to jail because of unpaid fines stemming from minor offenses, including traffic violations, loitering or failure to register a dog. It’s a practice that has been controversial and in decline across Australia for years, but here in a sparsely populated state that has a reputation for tough policing, the tactic remains.
The connection to race and domestic violence, though, is raising new questions about whether that should change.
Government statistics show that Aboriginal people have made up a highly disproportionate share of those jailed, leading to claims of discrimination. And public outrage over the practice has been intensifying since 2014, when a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman jailed for unpaid fines died in custody.
The inquest into the death of the woman, Julieka Ivanna Dhu, called for the abolition of imprisonment for unpaid fines and the creation of community work orders as an alternative. The state’s Labor government, elected in 2017, vowed changes as well.
For some, though, the promise of change has taken far too long to fulfill.
“This isn’t a constitutional amendment; this isn’t a massive infrastructure project,” said Charandev Singh, a human rights advocate who helped lead the inquest into Ms. Dhu’s death. “It’s just totally inexplicable why it’s taken so long.”
The state’s continuing use of the tactic, including the arrest of a prominent Aboriginal actor in January, prompted activists to start an online campaign that has already raised more than 360,000 Australian dollars ($257,700) to free those jailed for unpaid fines.
Organizers say five people have been freed so far and dozens of others have had their fines paid off.
Many more are still facing potential arrest. Left unpaid, fines for minor violations can mount, incurring interest and court fees, said Tomas Fitzgerald, a senior lecturer at the University of Notre Dame in Western Australia. Warrants can be issued not only by judges, but by civil servants who are given wide discretion.
For some, including Aboriginal Australians whose poverty rates surpass the general population, the escalating costs can become unreachable.
According to one government report, an average of 803 people in Western Australia were imprisoned per year between 2006 to 2015 solely for unpaid fines. About 44 percent were Aboriginal people, though (together with Torres Strait Islanders) they make up just over 3 percent of the state’s population.
The government, though it has yet to enact legislative changes, says it is easing up on the practice. The number of warrants issued for unpaid fines fell last year, official statistics show, but 535 people were still imprisoned, 40 percent of them Aboriginal.
After Ms. Bropho was arrested, the police took her from her home in an outer northern suburb of Perth to a women’s prison 30 miles away and told her she would be there for 14 days; each day, they said, would shave 250 Australian dollars off her fine. To her relief, she was released after four days when a donor from Melbourne paid the debt.
Still, the experience took a toll: An aunt rushed over to care for the children; the family, which was living week to week, saw its electricity shut off while Ms. Bropho was jailed.
“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.
Critics argue the state’s outlier status is especially surprising because the 2014 death of Ms. Dhu in custody prompted soul searching in Western Australia as well.
The case began with an anonymous tip to the police that Ms. Dhu’s partner had violated a domestic-violence order. But when the police arrived, they arrested not only the partner but also Ms. Dhu, whose debt of more than 3,600 Australian dollars ($2,600) originated from a smaller fine for failing to give police officers personal details after being stopped on the street.
An infection from broken ribs that Ms. Dhu had suffered during an earlier domestic abuse episode flared while she was in custody, the inquest found, and prison officials’ “unprofessional and inhumane” response helped lead to her death.
The desire to avoid a similar fate — and the fear of being jailed for unpaid fines — has caused some women to reconsider how they interact with the police.
Grace Cockie, a 39-year-old Aboriginal woman, said she called the police last year after a boyfriend smashed a window trying to break into her home in Perth.
“The police said to me, ‘Sorry Grace, if we were to come there, we won’t take him away, we’ll be taking you away,’” she said.
The Western Australia Police Force did not respond to messages seeking comment about Ms. Cockie’s account. Gerry Georgatos, the coordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service, said Ms. Cockie provided his organization with the same account at the time.
Now, Ms. Cockie says, she is afraid to call for help, knowing it might lead her to jail, and to the loss of her children.
“If they were to come and get me,” she said, “I’d be back at scratch again.”
Orignially published in NYT.