World First Fine Repayment Scheme Changes Lives

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In some parts of Australia you can go to jail for not paying a fine, but in the Work and Development Order (WDO) scheme in NSW is offering hope to avoid time behind bars.

The scheme is a world-first and has now been taken on in Queensland and Victoria, saving governments millions of dollars.

WDOs give options to people who are struggling to pay their fines.

The latest report from Revenue NSW revealed $125 million has been cleared since it began in NSW.

Jessica McLaren from Legal Aid NSW said the state has led the way for the rest of the country.

She heads up the program and said she is in awe of the program’s ability to turn a person’s life around.

“We’ve been really lucky have this program, the first in the world to try and address people’s fines debt in a therapeutic way and a community way rather than a punitive way,” Ms McLaren said.

She wants it to be an example to Western Australia.

“We’re hoping that it will be the whole country that wants to try what we do, because over in Western Australia you can still be imprisoned for having fines.”

Fines tipping people over the edge

A $900 fine was the tipping point for Shirley Stevenson, who was living in her car, when she was slapped with a fine for an unregistered vehicle.

“I was living in my car for eight months and I was staying out at the truck stop where it is not very safe,” she said.

“I had a fine, my car was due for registration and somebody said no, no you’ve still got three weeks, and of course I believed that person and I got a $900 fine.”

Bundjalung woman Ms Stevenson was being treated for anxiety, then she experienced a stroke, so a $900 fine was the last thing she needed.

When her doctor heard about the fine he referred her to the local Aboriginal homelessness service for help.

“I opened up to them, I didn’t hide anything, they stepped in and helped me,” Ms Stevenson said.

“I just wanted to throw the towel in.

“I’ll be honest with you I just felt like driving my car straight into the water, that’s how bad I was.”

Hard work transforms hard times

WDOs work in the same way as Community Service Orders.

But the work aspect of the order can range from working within the community to the more philosophical and practical approach of working on yourself, turning a life from chaos into order.

The homelessness worker at the Jali Aboriginal Land Council got Ms Stevenson onto a plan.

Each week she attended sessions with the worker to help get her life on track and that counted towards paying off her fine.

In another case 34-year-old James, from Kiama New South Wales, racked up almost $9,000 in fines and his life was on a downward spiral.

He had racked up almost $9,000 in fines and his life was on a downward spiral.

During those years, he accrued the fines mostly as a result of minor offences like smoking and drinking at train stations, but also for drug possession and later stealing to support his addiction.

“I wasn’t living a very positive life,” James said. “I was using drugs, which led to crime and I felt like there was no way out. I’d set myself up to fail.”

James was referred to a Work and Development Order in April last year, and given access to drug and alcohol rehabilitation, while paying off his fines.

Less than 12 months on, James is drug-free and was told this week his final $245 in fines will be paid off by Friday.

“I was grinning from ear to ear,” James said.

“It’s the best feeling.

“It’s just another reward for deciding to turn my life around.”

From debt despair to new lives

After life in an unregistered car, Ms Stevenson now has a place to call home.

“It is fantastic, [I] have a two bedroom unit, life is good,” she said.

Last year James finished his Certificate II in Community Services at TAFE Illawarra and is now working towards his Certificate IV, with the hope of working in mental health or drug and alcohol support.

“I speak to people every day that remind me of my situation,” James said.

“I want to want to work somewhere where I can help people like me.

“If you feel like you’re stuck in addiction, if you feel like you’re not living a positive life and like there’s no way out, ask if you can set up a Work Development Order because you can start paying off your fines, you can better yourself and turn your life around.”

Source: ABC News

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