$100m has been lost in unpaid fines – but did taxpayers get community work work $100m in lieu?

And by the time we're done, we'll have a nice little cycle track running through here...

And by the time we’re done, we’ll have a nice little cycle track running through here…

Alf observes with some interest the practice of converting fines into community work.

The story is told today in the NZ Herald, which says:

District Court judges have converted almost $100 million worth of fines into community work in the past four years when offenders have been unable to pay what they owe, but the Ministry of Justice says it is committed to ensuring the punishment remains a “credible sanction”.

Figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act show that between 2011 and 2014, 463,993 fines totalling $97,274,512 were converted to community work hours around New Zealand.

Those fines included court-imposed penalties and unpaid police and council infringement fees.

The number and total converted have steadily decreased over that time, going from 159,201 fines totalling $38,040,674 in 2011 to 66,863 totalling $11,575,106 in the first 10 months of 2014.

Fines are generally converted to community work only when all other enforcement options have been unsuccessful.

The Herald has talked to the Ministry of Justice’s collections general manager, Jacquelyn Shannon, who said about  $220 million was collected each year in fines and reparation – court-ordered payments offenders make towards their victims. About 90 per cent of that total was for traffic-related offences.

These figures suggest $880 million should have been collected over four years.

If $100 million was converted to community work, it seems around 10 per cent of fines have been settled by offenders offering labour instead of cash.

But it won’t be hard labour, we can be sure.

Ms Shannon agreed the number of fines converted to community work seemed high, but she said it was decreasing each year – as was the total amount of unpaid fines.

“These sentences of community work are a substitution for the original offence and not an additional sentence for failure to pay fines.

“The substitution of fines for an alternative sentence is a judicial decision that is only considered when all other enforcement options have been attempted or considered, or in special circumstances.”

The NZ Herald has provided some examples of community work: cleaning beaches, community parks and bush tracks, assisting foodbanks, schools and marae, helping councils with beautification projects such as the removal of graffiti.

But let’s not forget the Ministry of Justice says it is committed to ensuring the punishment remains a “credible sanction”.

The question to be asked, therefore, is whether we are getting $100 million of community work done in exchange for the foregone fines – and how is the value of the work assessed?

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