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Family of Tanya Day welcome decriminalisation of public drunkenness in Victoria

Dechlan Brennan -

The family of Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Tanya Day say the abolition of public drunkenness laws in Victoria is long overdue.

It comes as the state prepares for a health-based response that was first recommended in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, becoming the first jurisdiction in the country to meaningfully move away from criminalising public drunkenness.

On Friday, Ms Day's family said in a statement they believed she would still be alive if the laws had been repealed in line with the 1991 RCIADIC findings, but were relieved the state government had finally listened.

"This is a significant and long overdue day for Victoria," they said.

"We are the first and only state that has truly committed to decriminalisation. Meaningfully implementing this reform and treating public drunkenness for what it is - a public health issue that demands a public health response - ensures we are keeping the community safe and reducing the risk of people dying in police custody."

Aunty Tanya died in a prison cell at Castlemaine police station in December 2017 after she was arrested for being drunk in a public place after falling asleep on a train.

She had hit her head on a wall.

Aunty Tanya's family said their mother's case, and others of a similar nature, showed that police cells were an inherently dangerous place for inebriated people.

"For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people this is especially so, where systemic racism and bias held by individuals means that our people are more likely to die when detained in police cells," they said.

"No person should ever be locked up for being drunk, or for being perceived to be drunk, in public spaces. There should be no role for police or police cells in any public health response."

They called on the Allan government to work with both their family, and Indigenous communities across the state, to implement the "best practice and culturally appropriate Aboriginal-led health model" that was promised.

"Our family is yet to receive a public apology or acknowledgement of the role that police played in our mother's death and we continue to fight for independent oversight and accountability of police to ensure that what happened to our mum doesn't happen again," they said.

The coroner's report into her death found the police should have sought urgent medical attention and/or taken her to a hospital. Coroner Caitlin English also found the checks police officers conducted were inadequate and, contrary to Victorian police guidelines, failed to take proper care for her safety and welfare.

Ms English also found if the checks had been conducted in accordance with the guidelines, Aunty Tanya's situation and deterioration may have had a chance to have been identified and treated earlier.

She referred the two officers involved to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), believing "an indictable offence may have been committed."

The DPP chose not to prosecute.

Associate Professor Crystal McKinnon is a Steering Committee member at the Dhadjowa Foundation- a organisation to assist Indigenous families who have lost loved ones in custody. She says the foundation welcomes the law change, noting it was both long overdue and long recognised to discriminate against Indigenous people.

"(We) know that Aboriginal people are more likely to be arrested for this due to the racism and bias of police and others, so we know that this reform will help to save lives," she said.

"Public drunkenness laws have contributed to far too many deaths in custody. These changes have been worked towards and fought for by the Aboriginal community over decades and are well overdue."

As reported by National Indigenous Times on Wednesday, not-for-profit health service cohealth will lead a health-based approach to public-drunkenness, which is hoped will save lives. This includes call out teams that have a nurse as well as an alcohol and drug specialist, and a sobering centre.

Criticism has come from the Police Association of Victoria, and the State Opposition, who believe the reforms have been rushed and can pose a risk to the community if not properly implemented.

However, Assoc. Prof McKinnon says the process has been a long time coming.

"Aunty Tanya Day's family mobilised the community and worked really hard door-knocking, on social media platforms and engaging with the media to fight for this change. It was a lot of years of this work to get the government to listen," she said.

"This shows the power of grassroots campaigns when it's led by families of loved ones who've died in custody and the power of getting behind those campaigns which seek to deliver justice on the families' terms."

Monique Hurley, managing lawyer from the Human Rights Law Centre and the legal representative for the Day's in the coronial inquest, said the law change was down to the advocacy of the Day family.

"This is a watershed moment. Outdated laws across Australia that still allow police to detain people for being intoxicated in public pipeline people in and out of unsafe police cells and destroy lives," she said.

"If somebody is too drunk, they should be taken home or somewhere safe - they should never be locked up behind bars and put at risk of dying in custody."

Ms Hurley, the Day family and the Dhadjowa foundation all said they wanted further independent police oversight and accountability in order to "ensure justice for families whose loved ones have died in custody".

"Reigning in police powers should be backed by further action to end the status quo of police investigating themselves and dodging accountability for discriminatory policing. As long as police are allowed to act with impunity, Aboriginal deaths in custody will continue," Ms Hurley said.

The Day family stressed that change should not occur only after a tragedy.

They noted that multiple reports, including the 1991 RCIADIC findings, should be all the evidence needed to make decisions that prevent the needless loss of life, rather than the responsibility for advocating for change falling on people who have recently lost loved ones.

"The burden of driving all this work should not be left to families who have had their loved ones die at the hands of the state," the Day family said.

"Governments must be more proactive in getting the job done, so our families don't feel the pressure of having to pick up the slack while also grieving the death of our family members."

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