Please note, this story contains reference to someone who has died.
The Victorian Government is set to introduce legislation to decriminalise public drunkenness by the end of next week, following the release of a report into an alternative health-based response to public intoxication.
The report by the Expert Reference Group (ERG), Seeing the Clear Light of Day, recommends authorities respond to public intoxication as a health matter rather than a criminal matter.
The report recommends no person is detained in a police cell solely for being intoxicated in public and calls for a 24-month implementation period for the development of the new model.
It comes after campaigning by the family of Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Tanya Day, who died in police custody in 2017 after being arrested for public drunkenness.
Ms Day was arrested in December for public intoxication after falling asleep on a Melbourne train and taken to Castlemaine police station, where she was placed in a cell and inconsistently checked on over a period of hours.
Footage released at the request of Ms Day’s family shows the 55-year-old grandmother falling and hitting her head several times in the cell. Ms Day died just over two weeks later from a brain haemorrhage.
After an inquest into Ms Day’s death, Deputy State Coroner Caitlin English recommended public drunkenness be decriminalised.
A spokesperson for the Victorian Government said Seeing the Clear Light of Day was “an acknowledgement of the tragic and unnecessary death of Ms Day”.
Jill Gallagher AO, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) welcomed the report, calling it “long overdue”.
“The recommendations outlined in the Expert Reference Group’s report highlight the need for self-determination, community control, and cultural safety to be embedded in a public health approach to public drunkenness,” Gallagher said.
“This is essential for protecting Aboriginal communities and ensuring they are supported and kept safe.”
But Nerita Waight, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal service (VALS) has expressed concerns about the involvement of police in the new public health model, saying there must be strict limits on police powers in the new model.
“Our people are disproportionately impacted by policing of public intoxication, and it is crucial to involve those whose loved ones have died in custody and the broader Aboriginal community in these important reforms,” she said.
“As we move forward, VALS strongly encourages the Government to minimise the involvement of police in this model, to ensure that there are robust safeguards in place, and to engage the Victorian Aboriginal community in developing the model and assessing its implementation.”
The report recommends that Victoria Police be able to detain an intoxicated person only if there is “serious and imminent risk of significant harm to the intoxicated individual or other individuals”.
The Victorian Budget has allocated $16 million to kickstart the new health-based model, which Health Minister Martin Foley said would enable a more appropriate response to public drunkenness.
“This funding boost will allow us to deliver a health-based response to public drunkenness—better protecting vulnerable people by ensuring they have access to the culturally appropriate care they need,” Minister Foley said.
Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said the change would be a first step.
“Those who are intoxicated in public need our help to be safe and be well. The Aboriginal community has long advocated for these unfair and outdated laws to be overhauled,” she said.
“This legislation is an important first step as we move towards a health-focused model which has the best interests of Aboriginal Victorians at heart.”
Victoria is currently one of two states that has not yet decriminalised public drunkenness.
But despite strong support for the plan from Indigenous groups, Shadow Minister for Police and Community Safety David Southwick accused the Victorian Premier of failing to provide a clear picture of how the plan would work.
“The Victorian Liberal Nationals support action to reduce the rates of Indigenous offending, incarceration and deaths in custody, however Daniel Andrews has presented no details of a health response to manage affected individuals or keep the broader community safe,” Southwick said.
The Liberal Member said more work was needed before the change is made.
“With concerns being raised by the Police Association and the Australian College for Emergency Medicine, there is a clear need for further consultation to develop an outcomes-driven approach before any legislative change occurs.”
The Victorian Government has committed to introducing legislation to enact the change before the end of the year, and with only one sitting week left, it is expected soon.
By Sarah Smit