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Peak Aboriginal health group welcomes Victorian law reform on public intoxication

Giovanni Torre -

The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) has welcomed the state government's decision to implement an Aboriginal-led health-based response which will prioritise services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

VACCHO acknowledged "the Andrews-Allan government" for "finally" delivering the decriminalisation of public intoxication with no new arrest powers for police.

The organisation said on Tuesday that public intoxication laws have created an unsafe environment for all Victorians for years – but particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been disproportionately impacted by the application of the laws.

VACCHO noted that the decriminalisation of public intoxication was a key recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody because of its dangerous and discriminatory impact.

The health peak body also noted that almost six years have passed since much-loved Yorta Yorta mother, sister, grandmother, and community advocate Tanya Day lost her life after sustaining a head injury in a Victorian police cell, two weeks after her arrest under public intoxication laws.

As of Wednesday 7 November, being intoxicated will no longer be considered a criminal offence – a change that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities have been advocating for several decades.

VACCHO said public intoxication reforms are about "learning from past failings by applying meaningful changes that implement a health-based model that prevents people from being placed in potentially life-threatening situations".

It said the new direction of the Victorian government is "aligned with the evidence that demonstrates a health-based harm reduction approach saves lives and provides better outcomes for at-risk individuals and the broader community".

"Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations and their dedicated teams have worked side by side with Communities to deliver exceptional health and wellbeing outcomes for fifty years. They know their Communities inside and out and are best placed to provide services in a high-trust, culturally safe environment," VACCHO said on Wednesday.

VACCHO chief executive Jill Gallagher AO said the decriminalisation of public intoxication laws is vital for the betterment of the health and safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria, and indeed all Victorians.

"This is an historic and long overdue reform. I acknowledge the Andrews-Allan Government for empowering Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations to the front and centre of this historic reform," she said.

"This initiative champions Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal ways of knowing, being, and doing to deliver positive health and wellbeing outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities.

"Living and breathing in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community, we have regularly seen first-hand the detrimental and dangerous impacts public drunkenness laws have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people."

Ms Gallagher noted that for the same behaviour, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in Victoria have faced "inordinately higher rates of incarceration" for public drunkenness than non-Aboriginal Victorians.

"In some instances, this can lead to devastating outcomes with some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people subjected to far harsher and inhumane treatment whilst in custody," she said.

"Alcohol misuse is a public health issue, not a crime, and therefore should be treated as such."

VACCHO paid tribute to the Day family for their staunch and unwavering leadership and advocacy.

If this article has brought up any concerns or issues for you, please have a yarn with Yarnin Safe'n'Strong (1800 959 563) or 13YARN (13 32 16).

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