More unpaid fines are being converted to community work as people struggle to pay.
The Justice Ministry's general manager of collections, Bryce Patchell, said the increase in people converting fines to community work was caused by ministry staff chasing up fines more quickly. "We are getting through more of the fines' work faster. We are finding more people unable to pay their fines and we are finding an alternative."
The amount of unpaid fines remitted to community work has more than tripled in five years, from $16.6 million in 2005 to $55.7m last year.
People unable to pay fines and without assets that can be recovered are brought before a judge to have the fines remitted into an alternative sentence such as community work, home detention or a prison sentence.
Most are converted to community work. If a defendant is to serve a sentence of home detention or imprisonment on another conviction, the sentence can be extended to cover fines owed.
Most fines are traffic-related. The amount collected in fines last year was $240m. In the year to June this year it is expected to climb to $251m.
As the decision to remit fines lay with judges, it was not possible to forecast how much would be remitted this year, Mr Patchell said. Before a fine defaulter was put before a judge, warrants may be issued to seize goods or orders may be put on wages, bank accounts or benefits.
"If you put a wheel clamp on a person's car and they love that car, they'll find the money to get their wheels back," Mr Patchell said. "Our job is to enforce the law to collect fines and we do that every day. People know very well what they have to do to have fines resolved."
The largest fine remitted for community work last year was $20,089.67. The defaulter, who also owed $840 on other fines, had all outstanding fines remitted for 310 hours' community work.
The largest number of fines remitted by an individual in the past five years was 400 – totalling $40,000, remitted for 350 hours' community work in 2007.
- The Dominion Post