New look needed at penalties for litterbugs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 November, 2004, 12:00am

Sometimes even the most well-intended of measures have negative, unintended consequences. This seems to be the case with the $1,500 fixed penalty fine for littering.

The fine was raised from $600 last year to show that the government was serious about cleaning up our environment after Sars revealed how poor hygiene makes people vulnerable to disease. It was a necessary step that had no problem gaining broad public support, and in general it has contributed to making the city cleaner and safer.

However, we are now hearing about some members of the community facing jail because of their inability to pay the fines. Unfortunately, this is compounding their hardship while not doing much to improve cleanliness.

When someone fails to pay a fixed penalty fine within 28 days, the fee doubles, a court charge is added and a magistrate must adjudicate the case. Those who are unable to pay this bill are being jailed for up to 14 days. Court officers are saying it is the poor and elderly on fixed incomes who are being affected.

It all sounds inappropriately harsh, especially when less draconian alternatives exist, including allowing proven hardship cases to do community service instead of going to jail.

The court system does not allow any leeway to consider the community service option in fixed penalty cases. This should be added for the littering cases, and the service options should consist of assisting the cleaning and hygiene projects set up by the government's Team Clean taskforce last year.

The aims of the tough measures were to raise awareness and to change unacceptable and hygienically unsafe behaviour. It is doubtful the intention included giving litterbugs and spitters time in our overcrowded jails. Converting the fine to cleanup duty for those who cannot pay will be of far greater benefit to society. It is probably also a good way to drive home the government's message about taking pride in our surroundings and the need for better hygiene.

How to determine who faces hardship and who is merely pleading poverty to avoid jail time is something to be considered carefully. But if the risk is that there are more people cleaning up our streets and housing estates, surely this is a tolerable one.

There is also debate about imposing community service on repeat offenders. This is a separate issue. A large number of second-time offenders are litterbugs while nearly three-quarters of third-time offenders illegally post bills. It is not clear that a one-size-fits-all solution is possible, but allowing too much flexibility in imposing fines would call into question the equity of the system. Here, the government should look at the causes behind the behaviour it is trying to deter and fix the fines appropriately - or even adopt measures outside the fixed penalty system.