Please note: This story contains reference to someone who has died. 

 

On Thursday night, 30 years after it was first recommended by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Victorian Lower House passed a Bill to decriminalise public drunkenness.

The Upper House is expected to vote on the bill in coming weeks.

If passed, being intoxicated in a public place will no longer be treated as a criminal offence and will instead be seen as a health issue.

Victoria will join nearly every other Australian state if their Legislative Council passes the Bill, leaving Queensland as the only state where public drunkenness is considered a criminal offence.

The change has been triggered by the death of 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who sustained a fatal injury while in police custody after falling asleep on a train while intoxicated.

Day was catching the V/Line service from Echuca to Melbourne to see her family in December 2017; she had been drinking and started to fall asleep. As the train pulled into Castlemaine the conductor had called the police requesting help with an “unruly” drunk passenger.

The police arrested Day and placed her in custody, four hours later shortly after 8pm as police prepared to release Day from custody, they realised something was wrong. An ambulance was called but did not arrive for almost an hour.

When Day arrived at Bendigo Hospital, she had been bleeding in the brain for almost five hours. She had been left unattended in her cell and sustained traumatic head injuries. She did not wake up and died in Melbourne’s St Vincent’s hospital on December 22.

Following a coronial inquest in 2018, Coroner Caitlin English recommended the crime of the public drunkenness be abolished in Victoria, to which the Andrews Government agreed.

Day’s children Apryl Watson, Belinda Stevens, Warren Stevens and Kimberly Watson have since been leading the call for justice for their mother.

Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gabrielle Williams said in Parliament this week the Bill was an urgent step in the right direction.

“Thirty years is a long time to be talking about something,” she said.

“If there’s one thing that our Aboriginal community has demonstrated over hundreds of years, it’s unfathomable patience … it’s time for meaningful action.”

Since the Royal Commission in 1991, more than 430 Indigenous Australians have died in police custody and no police officer has been convicted of any of the deaths.

In November 2020, an expert reference group provided the Victorian Government with 86 recommendations to embed a health-based system spanning a two-year trial period as part of the Seeing the Clear Light of Day report.

The report recommended delivering more social services, prevention strategies and alternative transport options to allow people that are intoxicated an opportunity to get to places of safety, such as a private home, emergency departments or sobering-up centres.

Last year the Victorian Police Association expressed concerns about officers’ powers being reduced, claiming the process was rushed and would risk the safety of intoxicated people, emergency workers and the public.

By Darby Ingram