Please note, this story contains reference to someone who has died.
The number of Aboriginal women in Victorian prisons is continuing to rise due to strict bail laws seeing more women placed on remand in the state.
Over the past decade, the number of Aboriginal women on remand has skyrocketed.
In 2008, there were 15 Aboriginal women in Victorian prisons with 20.4 per cent on remand. In 2018, the number of Aboriginal women in Victoria’s prisons rose to 76 women, with 43.5 per cent on remand.
By June 2019, there were 575 women in Victorian prisons, with over 13 per cent identifying as Aboriginal, despite Aboriginal people making up 0.8 per cent of the Victorian population. Of these Aboriginal Victorian women, 47.7 per cent were on remand.
One factor contributing to this rising incarceration rate is the increase in unsentenced prisoners being held in custody on remand.
In 2017 and 2018, amendments to Victoria’s bail laws were introduced with the aim of tightening the state’s bail system and improving community safety. The reforms included a presumption against bail for ten serious offences, including murder and sexual offences.
Alleged offenders have to establish ‘exceptional circumstances’ and show ‘compelling reason’ to be given bail. Even if these factors are proved, offenders may still be refused if they are categorised as posing an ‘unacceptable risk’ to the community.
This means those charged with minor crimes are required to meet the same threshold as those charged with more serious offences like murder.
The ‘get tough’ amendments were created following a review of the bail system after the Bourke Street tragedy, where Dimitrious Gargasoulas drove his car through Melbourne CBD, killing six people and injuring over 30 more.
Gargasoulas was released on bail six days before the offence.
The amendments were labelled by Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula as an “improvement”; however, the statistics reveal otherwise for Indigenous women.
Tough bail laws hurting Indigenous women
Human rights and legal advocates are arguing Victoria’s bail laws are a major factor contributing to the state’s growing prison system, with vulnerable women being refused bail for minor crimes.
Monique Hurley, senior lawyer for the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne and advocate for Indigenous people, said those caught in the net of the tightened legislation are not necessarily the violent criminals the legislation was intended for.
“The Andrews Government made punitive changes to Victoria’s bail laws to target violent men, but in effect, the laws discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women the most,” Hurley said.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are being increasingly trapped in pre-trial detention because the bail laws make it impossibly hard to get bail in far too many circumstances.
“For example, if someone struggling to make ends meet shoplifts on a handful of occasions, it can be as hard for them to be released on bail as it is for someone accused of the most violent of crimes.”
“Tougher laws mean the most disadvantaged women in the Victorian community are being refused access to bail for non-violent offences.”
“As a result, a significant number of Indigenous women have cascaded into remand.”
According to the most recent Victorian Government Corrections data, one in five women in Victorian prisons have drug related offences as their most serious charge, followed by assault and property offences.
Hurley said the amendments made in response to the incident led to the creation of the “most onerous bail system in Australia”.
Law must consider women’s experiences
Jill Prior, Founder and Principal Legal Officer of the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women (LACW) in Melbourne said being refused bail can have dire impacts on women.
“When women are taken to prison, they are separated from their children … Often, it also means housing is lost. Connections to those children is interrupted,” she said.
“And what we see frequently, is women deteriorating significantly in their mental health, drug and alcohol and other issues because of the removal of their children.”
This was the case with Veronica Marie Nelson Walker, a 37-year-old Yorta Yorta woman who died while withdrawing from drugs when on remand at a Victorian prison. Her death is yet to be formally determined by the State Coroner.
Advocates are arguing the alarming numbers of Indigenous women in remand require urgent action on bail laws to prevent further black deaths in custody.
“The Andrews Government must take urgent action and change the laws so that people are given bail for all offences, except in circumstances when there is a specific and immediate risk to the physical safety of another person,” said Hurley.
“There should also be an explicit requirement in the bail laws that a person may not be remanded in custody for an offence that is unlikely to result in a prison sentence.
“The law should not treat a woman experiencing poverty the same as a man who is accused of murdering someone.”
Prior said one of the answers to address the issue of women on remand boils down to needing more diverse sentencing options to “allow for the very stark differences in women’s lives”.
By Grace Crivellaro