Please note, this story contains reference to someone who has died.
Tireless advocacy from the family of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day has resulted in the Victorian Government’s decision to decriminalise public drunkenness.
In December 2017, Ms Day was arrested while intoxicated and locked in a police cell where she sustained a fatal head injury and died several weeks later.
Ms Day’s family wrote an open letter urging Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to abolish the offence and collected thousands of petition signatures.
The family said the circumstances surrounding their much-loved mother and grandmother’s death had made the past 18 months extremely difficult.
“Our mum should be alive today. We know that racism played a role in mum’s death and that Victoria Police failed her. We want truth and accountability through this coronial inquest,” the Day family said.
“Our mother had so much more love and life to give – to us, to her grandchildren and to the broader community. We want to know the truth and we want justice for our mum.”
Before the inquest into Ms Day’s death, Acting State Coroner Caitlin English indicated that she would recommend the outdated law be abolished.
Almost 30 years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made the same recommendation and all jurisdictions except Victoria and Queensland repealed the offence.
In that time, approximately 514 Indigenous people have died in custody across Australia.
Last week, Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy announced the law would be abolished, saying the government acknowledged the disproportionate impact the current law had on Aboriginal people.
“Public drunkenness requires a public health response, not a criminal justice one, and now is the right time to take this important reform forward,” Ms Hennessy said.
While Ms Day’s family acknowledged the reforms should have come decades earlier, they welcomed the decision to decriminalise public drunkenness.
Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, Ruth Barson, who is representing the family, said Ms Day’s death should not have happened and accountability for her death was needed to prevent future deaths in custody.
“This case is a painful reminder that racism is lethal. Tanya Day was locked up under discriminatory laws that should have been abolished decades ago. She was then denied her basic dignity and left to haemorrhage on the floor of a concrete police cell,” Ms Barson said.
“The status quo of police dodging accountability for deaths in custody must be changed.”
Victorian Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos said the new reform would save lives and that the government would be working with organisations to improve the situation.
“We’ll be working carefully with the experts, including health services, Aboriginal groups and Victoria Police on how we can better protect vulnerable people who need support, not punishment.”
Advice about the decriminalisation of public drunkenness and the development of an alternative health-based response will be established by an Expert Reference Group.
The Expert Reference Group includes National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) Co-chair Nerita Waight and Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation COO Helen Kennedy who will provide advice in consultation with the Aboriginal community.
The new health-based model aims to assist alcohol-affected people in public places, who may be facing other challenges including homelessness, mental illness, family violence, and substance dependency.
Ms Waight said while the historic reform was embraced, Tanya Day should never have been in police custody.
“If the Victorian Government had implemented the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody when it was made 28 years ago, she [Tanya Day] would still be with her family today,” Ms Waight said.
“NATSILS supports the family’s calls for accountability for their mum’s death through the coronial process, independent investigations into deaths in custody, and eradicating systemic racism from justice institutions.”
The reform will put Victoria in line with almost all other states and territories across Australia.
The Government is due to report back to Coroner English on the reform’s progress by the end of the year.
The inquest into Ms Day’s death is scheduled for the next three weeks.
By Jade Bradford