Concern as millions in fines wiped

LIBBY WILSON
Last updated 05:00 27/12/2013

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Waikato's main courts wiped $4.7m of fines in the last financial year, and just over half of that value was written off without an alternative punishment.

Nearly 10,000 offenders had fines remitted in the district courts in Hamilton, Huntly, Thames and Tokoroa.

The figures have concerned those who deal with the victims of crime first-hand, but the courts minister says a large part of what is written off is court costs and penalty payments, and it is now harder for offenders to "dodge" debts.

Nationally, $68.6m in fines were wiped last financial year, and alternative punishments - like community work or imprisonment - were imposed for almost 40 per cent ($26.2m).

During the same period in the Waikato, $4.7m of fines were remitted, and more than half ($2.9m) wasn't replaced with an alternative punishment.

Where a different consequence was handed out, community work was by far the most common ($1.5m), followed by imprisonment, community detention and home detention.

Police Association president Greg O'Connor said he was concerned with fines vanishing for offenders with a history of them - such as boy racers.

"The general belief is that if you've got $1000 worth of fines, you've got a problem. If you've got $10,000 worth of fines or more, the courts have a problem. They [offenders] generally know that once they start to build up their fines then eventually they will get remitted," he said.

"The court should be a scary place for offenders to go to. It should never be somewhere where they walk out of there thinking ‘that was easy'."

The majority of judges were good, he said, but a few made "strange decisions", and there needed to be more accountability in those cases.

Sensible Sentencing Trust Waikato spokeswoman Paula Hastings was "horrified" by the amount of money remitted.

"It's pretty shocking really, because obviously the fines haven't been given lightly," she said.

A suitable punishment for people who had shown they wouldn't or couldn't pay a fine should be found from the outset, she said.

"We don't want to lock people in jail and throw away the key for minor stuff, but in the long run what we find is that these people who end up as violent, serious criminals start in that kind of field . . . if their initial experience with court is ‘I got a fine, and then I got it wiped,' what are they learning from that?"

But Courts Minister Chester Borrows said more than half the amount remitted nationally was additional court costs and penalty payments, which could "incentivise" an offender to pay the core cost.

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Judges or registrars made the decision to remit a fine, said Mr Borrows, often "when it's clear it is not going to be paid". "When this happens, the judge has the ability to impose an alternative sentence and this ensures that the offender is held to account. When an alternative sentence is not imposed, this may be for a range of reasons, including the person is bankrupt or deceased."

He also said a range of tools had been introduced to make it harder for people to get out of paying outstanding fines and reparation. This included the ability to suspend the driver licence of someone with unpaid traffic-related fines, or reparation, which will be enforced from early next year.

"These new tools have helped drive the amount of fines and reparation owed to their lowest level in almost a decade," said Mr Borrows.

- Waikato Times

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