Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Impact of the Victorian Infringements System on Disadvantaged Groups: Findings from a Qualitative Study

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Impact of the Victorian Infringements System on Disadvantaged Groups: Findings from a Qualitative Study

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the state of Victoria, Australia, a minor breach of the law typically results in an infringement notice, commonly referred to as a fine. The prompt payment of a fine reduces both the offender's contact with the criminal justice system, and the likelihood of him or her acquiring a criminal record. Coupled with an expectation of minimal government expenditure, an infringements system is supposed to be efficient and cost-effective. Further, it ought not be overlooked that fines are 'a significant source of state revenue', and may even be considered 'costs of living...in consumer societies' arguably undifferentiated from 'taxes and administrative costs (O'Malley 2009a: 21, 22, 80). Indeed, as a fine can be an easily dispensed, 'coercive penalty' (ALRC 2002b: 426), concerns readily arise about 'net-widening' (ALRC 2002a) and the proliferation of infringements for revenue-raising purposes rather than deterrence-based objectives (Fox 1995). In this context, it is particularly concerning that people experiencing challenging life circumstances appear to be fined more often than other people (NSW SC 2006; NSW LRC 2012), and their consequent burden far outweighs the burden experienced by others in better circumstances who, furthermore, are also more likely to have personal connections with people who can financially reduce or eliminate the impact of the offender's monetary penalty (see O'Malley 2009b; 2010). The fine, as O'Malley points out, is an extraordinary criminal sanction in that it 'legally can be borne by someone other than the offender' (2009a: 4) but this is an option only if friends, employers or relatives are able and willing to settle the offender's debt. It is notable that a fine also provides financially well-resourced or well-connected people with the 'capacity to purchase an otherwise forbidden deed' (O'Malley 2009a: 29), such as the ability to park in a restricted zone or to travel on public transport without a ticket. In contrast, 'many of the high-risk offenders are members of the "underclass"' (O'Malley 2009b: 79); disadvantaged groups of people who regularly incur fines beyond their means and in relation to deeds sometimes beyond their control. Navigating through the extremely complex Victorian infringements system can also be more challenging for disadvantaged groups of people, raising questions about its reasonableness and acceptability in its current form.

In Victoria in the 201 1/12 financial year, over 120 issuing agencies served approximately 4.79 million notices (Victorian Attorney-General 2011/12: 5). Initially introduced over 50 years ago in Victoria as a response to parking offences, infringements are now issued for a variety of vehicle-related offences such as speeding and failure to pay tolls, public transport offences such as failing to travel with a valid ticket or placing one's feet on seats, drinking in public, failure to wear a bike helmet, offensive behaviour, indecent language, and shop-theft (Lansdell et al. 2012). Disadvantaged groups often incur fines for public order offences, vehicle-related offences and public transport offences. Indeed, people who are experiencing homelessness are a particular target for public order offences as their challenging circumstances render them more visible and vulnerable than people who are housed. They may also be fined for normal behaviours, such as sleeping, swearing, drinking, urinating, or using a knife to prepare food, that are criminalised when performed in public spaces where homeless people may be forced to live. This arguable breach of human rights 'amounts almost to the application of a quite different set of laws' (Waldron 2000: 397). Further, as Morris, Judd and Kavanagh contend, socially just societies require 'that all sections of the citizenry, young and old, employed and not employed, are able to access adequate, affordable housing' (2005: 249), and research reveals the inadequacy of government resources aimed at addressing the problem of homelessness (Thompson 2007). …

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