Petty shoplifters and louts will be able to avoid a criminal conviction by paying a $500 on-the-spot fine under changes coming into effect next week that are expected to clear an estimated 7500 cases from courts each year and allow officers more time on the beat.
The long-awaited changes, which passed Parliament in 2011 and were put on hold pending a computer system to manage non-traffic fines, will allow police to issue infringements for offences of disorderly behaviour and stealing property valued at less than $500.
WA Police Assistant Commissioner Gary Budge has also flagged the possibility of expanding the system, which will start operating in the Perth CBD on Monday and be rolled out Statewide in June, to other offences after it is reviewed in a year.
“This is groundbreaking for us,” Mr Budge said.
“It is an initiative that is going to allow us to put a lot more police officers back on the street and out in the community and doing the work the community thinks is important.
“If there are more police on the road and in the community, the chances of being caught offending are far greater.
“So hopefully that deterrent effect will become stronger.
“Is there the potential for other offences to be linked to this in the future? Yes, there is.”
Police Minister Liza Harvey said the system would give police more flexibility in dealing with criminal behaviour and would introduce a procedure that meant stolen items were not seized and could be swiftly returned to their owner.
“Currently, police spend a considerable amount of time processing offenders at police stations and preparing for court appearances for petty theft and other minor offences,” Mrs Harvey said.
“That time will now be better spent on the front line, dealing with more serious criminal matters and responding to community requests for police assistance.”
Attorney-General Michael Mischin said the changes would reduce court time and trial backlogs by resolving petty offences immediately, rather than taking hours of time in arrests and court appearances.
Mr Budge said police retained a discretion whether to issue the fine, which could be challenged in court.
Offenders would have 28 days to pay the infringement, which would be sent in the mail similar to a process for issuing speed camera fines, and then be given another 28-day demand notice.
If paid in full, no criminal conviction would be recorded.
If unpaid, the matter would be referred to the Fines Enforcement Registry, which could then take action, such as suspension of a driver’s licence.
Mr Budge said time in custody would not be an option for paying the fines and, while the system was not about taking the “foot of the pedal” or treating offending less seriously, it was also not designed to have people in jail for offences that would not attract a jail term.
Factors including mental illness, capacity to pay and criminal record would be taken into account in exercising discretion on whether to issue or fine or refer a matter to court.
“These are not appropriate to issue to people who are living on the street with a mental illness or addiction or both,” he said.
Multiple fines could be issued against one offender but not on the same day.