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Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service urges parties to back justice reforms in State Election

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Victoria's Aboriginal Legal Service has called on parties and candidates in the Victorian state election to embrace a suite of reforms to the justice system.

The VALS 2022 Victorian Election platform includes bail reform; raising the age at which youth can be incarcerated; police oversight and accountability; independent detention oversight; prison abolition; an Aboriginal social justice commissioner; and a public health response to drug use and intoxication.

A number of justice groups backed the call.

VALS noted that over the past ten years the Aboriginal imprisonment rate in Victoria has almost doubled, and almost half of the prison population are on remand.

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight said Aboriginal women are fastest growing demographic in Victoria's prisons.

"Many of them are victims of family violence... many of them are primary carers (and many have) mental health issues and diagnosed disabilities. They need support, not criminalisation," she said.

"Tough on crime has not made our communities safer. Victoria's spending on prisons and police is unsustainable.

"Billions upon billions of dollars is wasted on prisons and police should have been invested in providing secure housing, excellent health care and education and work that pays the bills."

Djirra chief executive Antoinette Braybrook said 90% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison have experienced physical or emotional abuse, including family violence and sexual violence.

"Djirra joins with VALS in calling for a greater investment into Aboriginal Community Controlled solutions, not punitive legislation and the expansion of prisons," she said.

"It is unacceptable that several Aboriginal women have lost their lives in Dame Phyllis Frost Centre prison in the past few years."

Ms Waight said drug possession should be treated as a health issue and called for helplines directly associated with the offence.

"We're doing that with public intoxication at the moment, but why are we not doing that when it relates to drug possession?"

She said First Nations People in Victoria deserve a better, brighter future, "through connection to culture, community and country, and cannot continue this legacy of colonization of our community".

"The fact that we can lock up kids at ten years old is absolutely ridiculous and horrific and we should be ashamed of ourselves," said Ms Waight.

The VALS chief executive noted that bail reform is vital element of the VALS election demands because people who can't afford bail are being held in remand for prolonged periods.

A recent open letter to Victorian premier Dan Andrews, signed by nearly 30 organisations including VALS and the Human Rights Law Centre, also called for the introduction of a best practice police ombudsman.

The Victorian government spends significantly more on prisons than on new public housing. In 2019 it was reported Greens Leader Samantha Ratman noted the prison budget was ten times that for new affordable housing.

The Federation of Community Legal Centres has urged spending on justice reinvestment, an approach described as "building communities, not prisons".

The Centre urged prison funding to be invested in localized, data-driven solutions that target the specific underlying causes of crime, and said Victoria must adopt the United Nation's Optional Protocol to the convention against torture, to protect against abuse of power in prisons â€" which entrenches independent oversight over detention.

by Briana Charles

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