The Victorian government is rejecting calls to waive an estimated $3 million in COVID-19 fines handed to thousands of teenagers, despite many coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The COVID-19 Fines Community Lawyer Working Group, a coalition of 10 community legal centres, estimates at least 2000 children aged 14 to 17 have been fined in Victoria for coronavirus breaches during the pandemic.
In state parliament on Tuesday, Greens MP Tim Read asked Attorney-General Jill Hennessy if the fines would be renounced.
“The government has no intention of withdrawing fines that have been lawfully imposed,” Ms Hennessy said.
Mr Read pointed out the penalties, which range from $200 up to $5000, are in many cases above the maximum that can be imposed by the Children’s Court.
Many of the young Victorians dealt fines came from disadvantaged backgrounds and subsequently faced disproportionate financial impacts, he said.
“Children from low-income families have been disproportionately hit by COVID-related fines and these large unpaid fines are now threatening their future,” Mr Read said in a statement.
“It’s disappointing to hear the government say it has no intention of waiving the fines given to people under 18, given so many young people have no realistic prospects of paying them.
“We need to protect young people from entering the criminal justice system, not push them towards it.”
Another coalition of youth advocates, legal centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services and other organisations suggests the fines for those under 18 tally up to $3 million.
Smart Justice for Young People spokesperson Tiffany Overall said it was “cruel and unnecessary” to ask children, young people and their families to pay the hefty penalties given the challenges COVID-19 has presented.
“We are helping many young people who received fines while they were homes, experiencing mental health episodes, recently arrived in Australia with little or no English, and those in residential care,” she said.
“I don’t believe any Victorian would support fining children millions of dollars during a pandemic. It’s time to show compassion and reverse these fines.”
When asked by Mr Read how the government planned to protect children from the fallout of paying fines, Ms Hennessy listed a range of initiatives to ensure they don’t slip through the cracks.
“A minute would not give me enough time to talk about the reform and investment that this government is making around early intervention and changing the lives of young people,” she said.
“From the work and the investment that’s being done in the education sector to things like the intervention that is occurring in places like the Children’s Court.”