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As the Victorian government ramps up penalties to $5,000 for breaching Covid-19 gathering rules, statistics show young people received almost half of all fines dished out during the state’s first wave, while the South Sudanese and Aboriginal communities received an outsize number of fines.
Data released by the Crime Statistics Agency last week shows there were 6,062 breaches of Covid-19 rules associated with 5,474 people during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Victoria.
The average age was 29.5 years, and just one in four of those fined were women. Approximately 42% of those were under the age of 24.
According to the data provided to community legal centres, of the over 6,000 recorded breaches, there were just 67 warning notices issued. Only six businesses were issued with fines.
Throughout the pandemic, Victoria police has been releasing daily updates on the number of fines worth $1,652 issued the previous day, highlighting some of the most flagrant breaches, which some refer to as the “covidiots” of the day. But it doesn’t give a full picture of how police are fining people for Covid-19 public health order breaches.
Tiffany Overall, advocacy and human rights officer at Youthlaw, told Guardian Australia that based on those who approached Youthlaw seeking legal advice on fines, it appeared police were not using discretion all that frequently when fining young people.
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.
“Often there was confusion about what the rules actually meant,” she said. “Or technically it wasn’t even a breach. We would actually be challenging a lot of the fines matters that we’ve seen.”
Victoria police told Guardian Australia the data does not record informal warnings or conversations officers had with members of the public about breaching the orders, and said “countless” informal warnings had been issued since the pandemic began.
“Informal warnings and conversations were most often preferred over the issuing of formal warnings or cautions in the early stages of restrictions,” a spokesman said.
People who were born in South Sudan and Sudan were overrepresented in the fines issued. They made up 5% of the fines but only make up around 1.4% of the Victorian population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 4.7% of the fines, despite making up just 0.8% of the population in Victoria.
Ashleigh Newnham from Springvale Monash Legal Service said people from migrant background who were fined included a pair of Tamil refugees who were sleeping rough, and were fined when they ran into others when on their walk, with police allegedly assuming a group of four had gone out together in breach of the rules.
“They couldn’t explain that they weren’t all from the same household, in fact, and they weren’t out together – they just saw each other and stopped and said ‘hi’. And then all four of them got fine,” she said.
“The language barrier prevented them from being able to explain and also, they’re terrified [of police].”
Newnham said during the second wave a couple who were driving home from work together were fined by police for not wearing masks because police believed they were co-workers, not a couple who happened to work together. The couple did not speak English well enough to explain they were also married.
This week, Newnham said she was working to set up support services for the South Sudanese community in particular due to the large number of fines people within that community had been receiving.
A Victoria police spokesman said police had been working with support agencies to prevent rough sleepers being issued with fines, and officers had been “trained to understand the importance of interacting sensitively and respectfully with people from all backgrounds, including those from multicultural communities and vulnerable community groups who have complex needs”.
“It is not in the community’s interest to issue infringements to vulnerable community groups, such as people experiencing issues such as homelessness which require referrals to support organisations,” the spokesman said.
Victoria police reviews every fine to assess whether they’ve been issued appropriately, and despite Victoria police stating “a number of fines” have been withdrawn as a result of these reviews, Newnham and Overall said they had seen little evidence of fines being withdrawn through this process.
“We’re seeing really, pretty ridiculous fines come through the door. So you would have thought they would have got pulled up at that stage,” Overall said.
After the internal review process, the person fined can seek another review through Fines Victoria, but Overall said while many of the cases Youthlaw had taken on were pending, none of the community legal services were yet aware of a fine being overturned.
“None of them have been successful, even if we’ve thought that young person had really good grounds to be challenging that fine,” she said.
Overall said it was risky for young people to challenge the fines because the matter could end up being heard in open court if the review was not successful
“It’s a calculated decision, whether you go that route, weighing up the pros and cons.”
The data provided by the Crime Statistics Agency only covers March to June. Victoria police declined to provide data on the total number of fines issued throughout the pandemic. 7News reported a massive increase in the number of fines issued in the second wave, with over 23,000 fines since March, and reported less than one-third had been paid.
On Sunday, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, announced an increase in the fines for people breaching the rules on gatherings in Melbourne from $1,652 to $5,000.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Sudanese and Aboriginal people overrepresented in fines from Victoria police during first lockdown | Victoria