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Nats: Bring Back Debtors Prisons

Written By: - Date published: 1:18 pm, January 17th, 2011 - 36 comments
Categories: prisons - Tags: ,

The government is to introduce a new Courts and Criminal Matters Bill, much of which is sensible.  Suspending a repeated speeding fine-dodger’s license seems an appropriate sanction.

But sending them to prison because they can’t afford to pay a fine seems madness.  I find myself in agreement with this Herald editorial, seeing the ridiculous cost of building and maintaining ever more prisons as unsustainable.  Minor offences like unpaid fines should not result in the taxpayer spending vast sums to lock the offender up.

[T]he 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.

The government already has the power to take money automatically from bank accounts and wages for fines.  It can seize possessions like cars, boat and televisions.  It can stop people leaving the country.  It just needs to actually enforce these laws.

Currently the biggest unpaid fines are from companies and people who have fled overseas.  This law does nothing to impose on them.  The rich who thieve in the guise of companies cannot have that company’s driving license suspended, and there’s no provision to lock directors up.  And there’s no chance of extraditing people for an offence as minor as unpaid fines.

So it looks like it’s just an excuse to lock poor people up – at ordinary kiwis’ expense.

36 comments on “Nats: Bring Back Debtors Prisons”

  1. @ Bunji – no-one should be imprisoned because they CAN’T pay a fine. I would say that this policy is more targetted at those people who WON’T pay their fines, and who fail to comply with other sanctions imposed by the Courts.

    If you can afford to run a boy-racer type vehicle, you can afford to pay the fines that are imposed when you break the law; it’s called consequences.

    • Bunji 1.1

      the proposed law states: “unaffordable and unenforceable reparation orders” can be replaced with prison.

      I would say that when the govt can seize assets (including your boy-racer vehicle), or take money directly from income (wages or benefits), any fine should be enforceable, unless it can’t be afforded. And people who can’t afford it are specifically included.

      It’s a desperate desire for a pound of flesh, even if it costs us a ridiculous amount to get.

      • Olwyn 1.1.1

        While the boy racer is the public face of the unpaid fine, I suspect that many fines are run up by people with little money, who live outside the range of public transport and are forced to rely on unregistered, unwarranted rust buckets to work, shop, get kids to school and so on. It looks as if, having determined that you cannot squeeze blood from a stone, the time has come to experiment as to whether you can scare blood from a stone. And if that doesn’t work, at least we will end up with even bigger prison numbers to present to private investors.

        It is high time that we stopped equating callousness with strength, and the inhuman treatment of others with no-nonsense practicality. Such notions are now so entrenched that even those who argue for moderation often feel obliged to do so on practical rather than humanitarian grounds.

    • Colonial Viper 1.2

      Uh, Inventory2, if these are people who could but as you say WON’T pay their fines, why does the Bill not just solve the problem by confiscating their assets?

      As Bunji has pointed out.

      Why cost tax payers more, and still leave the fine unpaid.

      Its National Government madness. And their property rich Righty mates would hate any kind of asset seizure law be introduced anyways, wouldn’t they?

      • Deadly_NZ 1.2.1

        Confiscate their Assets??? Oh joy what a fun person you are, Confiscate the assets of 1 person has a roll on effect as NOT all people with Fine problems are Toe rag boy racers, some are parents with small children, so Yes go ahead and confiscate the kiddies TV and Playstation, and Dont forget the family car so they have to walk to the doctors, Oh thats right they cant afford that either. I just love all you BASH the Bene and Asset strip the poor over a fine or 2 Fucking NAT shills

        NO CV next time engage BRAIN before (in this case) before the fingers hit the keyboard. Or are you one of these JKey fans of one size fits all? As long as the All are rich?

        • Maynard J 1.2.1.1

          So your solution is what? To formulate law based on the assumption that any penalty, financial or otherwise, must be inflicted based upon a scenario where the imposition of such penalty will prevent the recipient from taking their kids to the doctor?

          That\’s a good starting point.

          Why have fines and penalties, they might cost people money…

          Honestly, you might be a leftie, but you’re surely an idiot as well. How is it you propose laws be enforced? Make all penalties voluntary?

    • Deadly_NZ 1.3

      Hang on a minute there it’ will be more about those who can’t pay as well as those who won’t pay. Because the people in the fines office dont really care about your circumstances they just take and take. And to add insult to injury it seems every time they ring you up about unpaid fines, all you get ringing you is a bloody INDIAN. To which I just hang up on them! it’s just as bad as having all your call centers sent overseas. well call me a snob or even a RACIST BUT if i call telecom or the court system I want to speak to someone who speaks , but more importantly UNDERSTANDS english and the Kiwi nuances of the language. not someone who has just learnt the essential bits.

      But it’s just another old , failed policy, this one from about 250 years ago Surely the NACTS can come up with something a little more original.

      Oh and most who run Boy racer cars had them paid for by Daddy, but not the fines so that argument is invalid. It should be Find out who is the Guarantor for the vehicle loan costs, Fine them and then Crush the car. That will stop that little loop hole. But putting young teens in jail with hardened crims what a bright fucking idea that is. Yeah John good training for the next bunch of hardened crims if you start jailing them early. God what a fuckwit this Key is Not an original idea rattling around inside his empty head.

      • QoT 1.3.1

        And to add insult to injury it seems every time they ring you up about unpaid fines, all you get ringing you is a bloody INDIAN.

        Gods forbid New Zealand-based call centres should hire immigrants. If your beef with the phone or justice systems is so obscure you need someone to understand the “nuances” of Kiwi English (is that when you go off about how you don’t blame them for doing their job but you DO expect them to listen to ten minutes of expletives so you can feel better about yourself?) then I’m not surprised you have little luck getting your point across.

        [In the interests of full disclosure, I wish to state I have worked in call centres and transcribed call centre calls, and I've encountered plenty of wankers who just want to have a go and expect the rules to be changed because they say so, my dulcet vaguely-UK-accented tones notwithstanding.]

        • Deadly_NZ 1.3.1.1

          Oh so you live in the phillipines do you? So were you the one who could not understand that I wanted a phone moved from address a to adress b and who insisted that I had ordered it the other way. I knew which house i was moving from. That and the continual I’m sorry i apologise after every sentence. BUT who have the complete inability to do even the simplest of tasks properly? If so, I hope you have either been A: fired or B: more likely they made you a supervisor who CANNOT ever come to the phone.!! And 99% of call center workers seem to take great delight in just running so slow and incompetently No wonder they pay them peanuts Cos they not worth any more. Yeah and why is it that the only person who rings up for unpaid bills in an INDIAN??? I have never had anyone but an Indian ring up, and it’s always at about 8pm as well. NZ based call center??? now thats a rarity.

          • Hanswurst 1.3.1.1.1

            Well that’s just racist. Call centres tend to be outsourced overseas because it’s cheap. Employers in New Zealand employ immigrants because they apply and are deemed to be up to the job – why shouldn’t they be? If you wanted to complain about the outsourcing of call centres to places where the employees don’t have the local knowledge to answer your questions, that would be legitimate enough (although hardly on topic). That’s not what you did, though; you just went into several rants about “INDIANS!!!”.

            As I say, just racist.

    • bbfloyd 1.4

      Inventory….so we can assume that most of the unpaid fines outstanding are owed by this group?

  2. tsmithfield 2

    Some people would happily do a bit of lag if it meant they could get rid of their fines.

    • Colonial Viper 2.1

      I didn’t see anywhere that their fines would be wiped, is that what the proposed legislation states?

      By the way, make someone a convict, they are much less unemployable, how are they supposed to contribute to the tax base afterwards, after costing the tax payer a bundle while in prison?

      • Jenny 2.1.1

        In the original debtor prisons people were held indefinitly until either their friends or family paid the fine to get them out.

        The logic being if the victim was to impoverished to personally pay their fine, that their wider extended family or friends may be able too.

        It was like being held to ransom after being kidnapped by the state. With specialist debtor prisons built for holding the victims of this ‘legal’ kidnap and ransom.

        Is some version of this being planned?

        Will people be let out of prison if their fine is paid?

        capcha – “key” (so apt on so many levels)

        • Jenny 2.1.1.1

          This proposal is so sick and medieval.

          Lots of questioned will need to be answered.

          Will a court hearing be held to determine if such a sentence is appropriate?

          What if you are the sole carer for children in your care, the elderly or sick, or the sole provider for a family, will these grounds be considered before a prison sentence is imposed?

          Or will it be one size fits all?

          Will poor houses also have to be built to house the dependants of those in jail?

          Will there be set lengths of time depending on the amounts owed or some other formula?

          Most importantly will the fine be wiped, with no criminal record kept?

          After serving your time will records of your credit history be altered to say “paid in full”?

      • Sorry, I come late to this debate due to an unpleasant encounter with a jellyfish (the jellyfish won :-( )

        didn’t see anywhere that their fines would be wiped, is that what the proposed legislation states?

        Well, up there in a comment Bunji says:

        the proposed law states: “unaffordable and unenforceable reparation orders” can be replaced with prison.

        If that is indeed the case (I haven’t read the particular law) then I’d make two points.

        First, tsmithfield is dead right – a lot of people who have fines to pay would prefer to deal with it some other way. It needn’t be confinement to a high security prison – which is indeed wasteful overkill – but many would be happy to front up to a work camp for a few days and just get rid of the burden with their labour helping the community.

        When sentenced to prison in WA you can opt to do a few extra days to wipe your fines. I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t been only too hapy to sacrifice a few days of freedom for the freedom of being free of debt to the government, so it’s a matter of allowing those who aren’t already incarcerated for something more serious the ability to make the same choice, but at a net cost of zero to society.

        Second, if the Bill talks of reparations these are not fines at all! Reparations are money an offender must pay to their victims to compensate them.

        If the Bill is talking about terms of imprisonment to pay off reparations that’s a very different – and very wrong – thing, as it gives the state a pound of flesh while leaving the victim with nothing.

        So which is it? Anyone know for sure?

  3. tsmithfield 3

    Don’t know whether the fines get wiped or not. However, I know someone who recently came out of prison who had some fines also. He was quite happy to do some extra time on top of what he was already serving if it meant he could get rid of his fines.

    Reading the article, it looks like the threat of prison is just one of a number of options to encourage people to pay their fines. Problem is that it is easy for some people to give the government the one-finger salute when it comes to paying their fines. So their needs to be some tough measures to encourage compliance.

    Anyway, from the article that Bunji links to:

    “Labour Party courts spokesman Rick Barker supports the new law.”

    So, it looks like its Labour party policy as well. So, its a bit unfair to blame this on the Nats.

    • Colonial Viper 3.1

      So you made your comments that people would be happy to do time if their fines get wiped, but we don’t actually know if that’s the case?

      Speaking of tough measures, why not asset confiscation instead of costly prison, where is that in this Bill?

      • tsmithfield 3.1.1

        Looks like that option is already in the law. From the article:

        “The courts can already order compulsory deductions from wages, benefits or bank accounts.
        Possessions such as cars, boats and televisions can be seized, and overdue fines can stop people from travelling overseas.”

        So, what do you think about the fact that Labour is supporting the new law?

        • Colonial Viper 3.1.1.1

          So, what do you think about the fact that Labour is supporting the new law?

          If the did they need to wake up, have another coffee and reread the legislation.

          • tsmithfield 3.1.1.1.1

            Well they certainly seem to support the new law. As I quoted from the article above:

            “Labour Party courts spokesman Rick Barker supports the new law.”

            And we all know that what is printed in the newspaper must be true, don’t we.

  4. JayDee 4

    I see from the Herald article, that the biggesdt defaulter at about 1.8 million is now in Australia and still cannot be tought. It might be a good, to start closing these types of loopholes.

  5. Irascible 5

    In many countries the fines register is linked to the passport /identity card of the individual. When you are at the airport or other exit ready to leave the country the friendly Customs man at Passport control simply says “sorry, you can’t leave the country, regardless of nationality, until these fines are paid” and presents you with the bill and sends you of to pay – with only hours to complete the transaction and return.
    The incentive to pay up is certainly great and doesn’t require the threat of debtors prison.

    • Bunji 5.1

      We already have that, but it doesn’t affect those who don’t leave the country, or those who’ve managed to leave before the verdict is handed down (see $1.8million defaulter…). But yes, enforcing that well is one part of an effective system.

      • Draco T Bastard 5.1.1

        Just make it automated – get a fine, can’t leave the country until the fine is paid.

        • mcflock 5.1.1.1

          What if you’re challenging the fine but haven’t got a court date yet? Or have arranged to pay by instalment rather than lump sum? Sounds like imprisonment w/o trial, unless these become exceptions and then all you have to do is go through the motions before skipping the country.

          But anyway, I have a certain feeling of uneasiness when people talk about replacing fines with imprisonment. It’s a bit like bribing the courts in exchange for freedom. I don’t mind fines as a punishment, or imprisonment, or both, just the outright substituting of one for another is a bit ookey.

          • Draco T Bastard 5.1.1.1.1

            What if you’re challenging the fine but haven’t got a court date yet? Or have arranged to pay by instalment rather than lump sum?

            No change, both of these would see people skip the country without paying the fines and the whole point is to encourage people to pay the fine.

            Sounds like imprisonment w/o trial,

            No it doesn’t as people won’t be imprisoned. In other words, they would still be able to continue life as normal.

            • mcflock 5.1.1.1.1.1

              Cop writes ticket (and some tickets can be quite hefty). Person has good defense, but needs to go to court to get fine cancelled (e.g. cop didn’t realise the rural road was actually a private road when person was “speeding”, or put the wrong date one the ticket, or failed XXX etc etc etc). Wants to appeal, but has to go to Melbourne on a business trip (or a relative is dying) the next day. Under automatic updating, the person is prevented from leaving NZ because they refuse to pay a ticket that they wouldn’t have to pay if they could get to court earlier.

              Admittedly they’re only imprisoned within the confines of NZ (and I can think of worse things), but their freedom of movement is still limited, without trial. And if they have a genuine need to travel outside of NZ then it’s a bit unfair.

              And if tickets are a bit of a slide from court-imposed fines (and those can get REALLY hefty), it does become one law for the rich, another for the middle and working classes. Flat taxes are unfair to poorer people, so are flat fines. Rich person writes a cheque and holidays in the Caribbean, poor person can’t even pop over to aus to get work.

    • lprent 5.2

      Wouldn’t worry me. Last time I left the country was 1991

  6. Descendant Of Smith 6

    The whole prison for court thing is interesting too as it can go wrong.

    One woman who lives here did exactly that and worked out with the courts how long she would need to do extra to have her fines wiped.

    The sentence was agreed to by the court and off she went.

    Her lawyer forgot to mention to the judge that part of the sentence suggestedwas for the fine offset, she did her time and came out to find she still owed the fines.

    She was not a happy person and some 8 months later still hasn’t been sorted if it ever will.

    She’s pretty much given up and sold stuff to pay the fines – which she might as well have done in the first place.

    Caveats on properties for all crown money owing – not just fines seems to me to be a good idea. Seen plenty of people sell up and go to Aussie not paying their fines, etc. Particularly those fathers who don’t pay their child support.

    At least the money could be gleaned when the property is sold.

  7. Gina 7

    There needs to be money values specified in this legislation. Years ago I had an old unpaid fine of approximately $100. No one should be put in prison for something like that.
    I got a nasty shock when police turned up and escorted me to a money machine to get my almost last penny. I was an invalid with no benefit whos savings were at an end. The reason the fine was unpaid was I was too ill to look after myself and had no help. But there was no mercy. They took what was almost my last penny and in the car the officer made refernces to feminism. I am a feminist and I wonder if this is why I was picked on for such a small amount of money. The guy who I didn’t know obviously new I was a feminist so it appeared to me that I might have been harrassed by authorities for my personal belief.
    Unless labour can give me a reason for supporting this bill I think I’ll stop campagning for them. Really they might as well be National. It sounds like the scope of this bill is far too broad. There must be monetary limits to doing jail time. Say $10000 plus.

    Apparantly Canada is expanding prisons despite 2 decades of crime going down. Harper is also allowing double bunking to cope with an increased prison poplulation.

    Take a look at this article

    Harper government expanding prisons despite decades of falling crime rates.
    http://pennyforyourthoughts2.blogspot.com/2011/01/harper-government-expanding-prisons.html

    Another interesting look at private prisons and the cheap labour they create for corporations in the US. Prisons are becoming sweatshops. I believe this is the reason behind what the Nats are doing and it must be stopped.

    Prison Labor: Who Stands to Profit in USA’s Most Important Growth Industry?
    Read more: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/199622#ixzz1BHbF1Gto

  8. Jenny 8

    A lawyer friend of mine who deals with a lot of this sort of thing, told me recently that much of the unpaid fines total is made up of penalties automatically added to the original fine, for non-payment.

    If someone was given a fine at some time, say a particularly stressful time in their life where for what ever reason, (unemployment, sickness, depression, marital break-up) they couldn’t pay, if they get back into a position where they would like to be able to clear their debt, the accumulated penalties have snow balled so much it is often impractical to pay them off without returning to the level of impoverishment that originally prevented you paying the fine in the first place.

    I think that it is unreasonable to expect someone who has finally got back on their feet again after a bad patch, to be expected to put themselves back into penury possibly even for years to pay off such debts.

    If someone is on or near the minimum wage this is like asking them to accept a condition akin to slavery for no appreciable gain.

    The original fine sure. But the “fictional” added debt no, because it can never be recovered and should never have been imposed.

    Can anyone tell me how much of this unpaid fines mountain is penalties?

  9. orange whip? 9

    At the heart of this policy is the principle that if you have money you can buy your way out of jail while your poorer neighbour is imprisoned for the exact same offence.

    Disgraceful. Any party supporting this should be ashamed.

  10. Bunnykinz 10

    I apologise if someone has already made the connection here, but does anyone else find it fishy that after National has decided to privatise prisons, they have started introducing laws that will create whole new categories of prisoners?

    If I was going to set up a prison business, I would sure as hell want to make sure that the Government wasn’t about to stop sending people my way.

    I know it is not entirely related to the case here, but you can see what lengths private prisons will go to to ensure turnover http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKTRE51B7B320090212

  11. Jenny 11

    Someone should tell these Dickensian throwbacks that it is the 21st century not the 19th…..

    The Labour opposition could be making huge political capital out of opposing this legislation.

    Unfortunately Labour seem to happy to play Whig to the Nats. Tory on this.

    Come on Labour, it’s election year. You have to show difference to the government if you are hoping to replace them.

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