Australia

New public drunkenness laws to focus on health, not police response

Victorians who are drunk in public will no longer be incarcerated and police should play as little a role in their treatment as possible under recommendations for new laws aimed at decriminalising public drunkenness in Victoria.

A government-commissioned report recommends "safe places" be set up that include first-response medical staff and equipment, culturally appropriate processes, sobering services for long-term recovery and transport options that only involve police when there are no other options available.

Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day died after suffering a head injury in a cell at Castlemaine police station.

Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day died after suffering a head injury in a cell at Castlemaine police station.Credit:Justin McManus

Victoria and Queensland are the only Australian states or territories that consider public drunkenness an offence. Aboriginal communities, which are disproportionately affected by the current laws, have advocated for reform for decades.

The report was handed to Attorney-General Jill Hennessy on Friday. The Victorian government says it will introduce the changes – first discussed by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 30 years ago – to Parliament before the end of the year, with the laws to be active within two years.

Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said the government will adopt all 86 recommendations of the report.

Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said the government will adopt all 86 recommendations of the report.Credit:Simon Schluter

The Andrews government commissioned the independent report after the highly publicised death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in December 2017.

Ms Day had fallen asleep on a train from Bendigo when police took her to Castlemaine police station, where she hit her head at least five times inside a cell without any officers checking on her wellbeing. She was taken to hospital where she died 17 days later.

The report, undertaken by health, legal and Indigenous advisers Jack Blayney, Helen Kennedy, Tony Nicholson and Nerita Waight, found Ms Day’s death “reflects a much larger, systemic issue across Victoria”.

"What the data tells us is that the criminalisation of public drunkenness discriminates against vulnerable people and in particular Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, Sudanese and South Sudanese communities, people experiencing homelessness, substance abuse and people experiencing mental health [issues]," they wrote.

Tanya Day in the Castlemaine police cell where she hit her head at least five times.

Tanya Day in the Castlemaine police cell where she hit her head at least five times.Credit:Coroners Court of Victoria

The report found a "very low" 159 incidences of public intoxication occur in Victoria every week, with 84 per cent of people entering custody only once in their life for drunkenness.

However, a "high intensity" cohort of 6.5 per cent of people are responsible for more than a quarter of all public intoxication offences. The report suggests they would particularly benefit from a health-based response.

Ms Hennessy pledged to follow all 86 recommendations of the report and initiate a two-year implementation period for the public health model in multiple locations across Melbourne and regional Victoria.

“Those who are intoxicated in public need our help to be safe and be well,” she said.

"The Aboriginal community has long advocated for these unfair and outdated laws to be overhauled. This legislation is an important first step as we move towards a health-focused model which has the best interests of Aboriginal Victorians at heart.”

In the government's response, they acknowledge the "unacceptable, disproportionate impact that Victoria's current public drunkenness laws have had on Aboriginal people".

Tuesday's state budget included $16 million to enact the "complex reforms" and support several trial sites across Victoria.

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