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'A betrayal' : VALS criticise Victorian government's backflip on youth bail laws

Dechlan Brennan -

New legal framework in Victoria has been labelled a betrayal of Aboriginal children by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, with the organisation arguing the Victorian government has broken their promise to reform the state's heavily criticised bail laws.

On Wednesday, the government announced a new trial which allows courts to order young people who've been charged with serious offences to be subject to electronic monitoring as part of their bail conditions.

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said the trial will be an "extra tool to ensure that bail conditions are followed".

"Bail compliance is not optional and should be taken extremely seriously," Minister Symes said.

"If a person continues to abuse their bail conditions or commit further crime, it is our expectation that their bail is revoked."

In a statement, the government said: "If non-compliance is detected such as breaching curfew, the electronic monitoring will alert authorities and police will be able to file for bail to be revoked – creating an additional protection for community safety".

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) said they were only informed on Tuesday evening of the decision.

In a statement, legal organisation said they'd engaged with the government in "good faith" for five years during consultations on both the Bail Amendment Bill and the upcoming Youth Justice Bill.

"Even as recently as late February we were told by the Victorian Government in writing that they were progressing the much-needed bail reforms for children as they were originally proposed in the Bail Amendment Bill," VALS said.

"It was only late last night that we were told that they were going to backflip on the multiple promises they made to Aboriginal communities."

The bail laws were labelled "a complete and unmitigated disaster" that discriminate against Aboriginal people by a coroner in the inquest into the death of Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson.

Her death in a Victorian prison led to the changes, which some argue haven't gone far enough.

VALS chief executive Nerita Waight. (Image: The Wheeler Centre)

Describing the move as "backwards and archaic," VALS said the government had reneged on its promise to remove reverse onus bail provisions for young people, except for those charged with homicide and terrorism offences.

Reverse onus provisions put the onus on an alleged offender - rather than a prosecutor - to prove they deserve bail.

"Decisions like this contributed to the continual over-policing and over-incarceration of Aboriginal children, stealing that future from them and decimating Aboriginal families and communities," VALS said.

The legal organisation questioned how it could "meaningfully walk down the path of Treaty with a government so willing to walk away from their commitments?"

VALS chief executive, Nerita Waight said Premier Jacinta Allan was developing a "terrible track record" when it came to law reform.

"At every turn, she has picked the meanest and most punitive policy – whether its punitive parole laws or electronic monitoring, the Premier seems intent on making Victoria a penal colony once again," Ms Waight said.

"This decision will impact on the great work Aboriginal Communities have been doing to stem the tide of over-policing and over-incarceration of their youth."

Ms Waight, who is also a member of the First Peoples' Assembly, said electronic monitoring was a failed idea that only the "most desperate politicians cling to".

"This is a betrayal of the promises they have made under the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and the National Agreement for Closing the Gap. It is a senseless decision," she said.

"Instead of giving Aboriginal people a voice to parliament, Jacinta Allan has sent us a message from Parliament, and that message is that abused and traumatised children are expendable.

Victorian Greens justice spokesperson, Katherine Copsey, asked if the police were writing justice policy in the state.

"The Greens have been pushing for humane justice policy for years to reduce the over-incarceration of First Nations people, including raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14," Ms Copsey said.

"Yet at every turn Labor seems to cave to conservative pressure, and implement harsh law-and-order policies that disproportionately impact First Nations communities."

The Victorian government has rubbished claims it is looking to abandon raising the age of criminal responsibility, in the wake of criticism from the opposition and police union concerning youth crime.

Currently the age is set to be raised to 12 years-of-age by mid-2025, and 14 by the end of 2027.

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