Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and young individuals from refugee and migrant backgrounds have been disproportionately fined for breaching Victoria’s strict COVID-19 restrictions, according to the Guardian.
Over 6,000 fines were distributed during Victoria’s first wave of COVID-19 restrictions between March and June, new figures from the state’s Crime Statistics Agency reveal. Individuals born in Sudan or South Sudan made up 5% of all issued fines but account for just 1.4% of Victoria’s population.
Indigenous Australians, meanwhile, were issued 4.7% of fines, despite making up less than 1% of the state’s population.
Tiffany Overall, an advocacy and human rights officer at Youthlaw, a service providing legal aid for young Victorians, said the nuances of the already baffling restrictions can leave people with migrant backgrounds particularly confused and overwhelmed.
Victoria Police, Overall added, clearly lack discretion when it comes to distributing fines — which can reach up to $1,652.
"Often there was confusion about what the rules actually meant,” Overall told the Guardian, before explaining that frequently, the fines handed out are for actions that technically do not breach restrictions. “We are challenging a lot of the fines that we’ve seen.”
Victorians could be fined for failing to self-isolate, not wearing a mask in public or flouting the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
Currently, Victorians can be fined for leaving their house for longer than two hours, going for a walk with more than one other person or being beyond five kilometres of their home — except for essential workers, those giving essential caregiving or to attend medical appointments.
The restrictions often change weekly.
Overall said she was concerned about the volume of young people being pulled into the legal system when the breaches – if they were even breaches – were not flagrant. @YouthlawVic@SMLS_clc#Covidpolicing#COVID19Aus#VicPolWatchhttps://t.co/Mq4BPyXYWY— Police Accountability Project (@Police_Acc_Proj) September 28, 2020
Ashleigh Newnham from Springvale Monash Legal Service said language barriers are also causing frustration.
One couple, Newnham explained, were driving home from work together when fined for not wearing masks. Police believed they were colleagues, as opposed to a husband and wife who simply work together, and the couple were unable to explain their situation, the Guardian reports.
“The language barrier prevented them from being able to explain and also, they’re terrified [of police],” Newnham said.
For many, the disproportionate rate of fines for Indigenous Australians and migrant populations isn’t surprising.
These communities, particularly Indigenous people, are disproportionately sent to prison in Australia — with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults accounting for around 2% of all Australians and 27% of the national prison population.
Indigenous youth are also 24 times as likely to be in detention than non-Indigenous Australian children.
According to Chair of the Justice Reform Initiative Robert Tickner, it was only in July this year that imprisonment for unpaid fines was finally scrapped across the country — a law that primarily affected Indigenous Australians.
Still, Tickner explains Australia has a continued problem with racial profiling, unconscious bias and over-policing of Black people — with punitive policies and “trivial” fines enforced selectively.
"The revolving prison door is bad for families and communities and entrenches disadvantage," Tickner said, according to the West Australian. "It wastes human potential and is scandalously wasteful of public money that could be spent on enhancing the well-being and productivity of communities."
On Sunday, Victoria increased fines for breaching public gathering rules from $1,652 to $5,000.