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Australia Expert panel devises health-based response to public drunkenness in Victoria

00:16  28 november  2020
00:16  28 november  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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If a health-based response to public drunkenness which has been proposed for Victoria had been in place on December 5, 2017, the day may have ended very differently for Tanya Day.

The 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman was asleep on a train from Bendigo to Melbourne when she was taken off by V/Line officials and handed to police, who put her in a cell to sober up.

There, she struck her head at least five times, suffering traumatic brain injuries which later claimed her life.

On the eve of the coronial inquest into Ms Day's death in police custody, the State Government committed to decriminalising the offence of public drunkenness.

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Now, an expert panel which includes police and Aboriginal health and legal workers has laid out an "eminently achievable" path to replace a criminal response with a health-based system in two years.

The panel's Seeing the Clear Light of Day report says the system must be built on the "fundamental premise that no-one should be placed into a police cell simply because they are intoxicated in public".

Panel member Helen Kennedy, who has years of experience in Victoria's Aboriginal community health organisations, said the report's title was a way to honour the memory of Aunty Tanya Day.

"Regrettably, Aunty Tanya's tragic and unnecessary death really was, we believe, in effect a tipping point for Victoria to follow into line with other states and jurisdictions and reform the legislation and ultimately reduce black deaths in custody and incarceration," she said.

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Getting people safely home the best option

Under the report's recommendations, the first responders to a public intoxication incident should include outreach or alcohol and drug services workers and, where appropriate, groups controlled and run by the Aboriginal community.

It said there should be transport options — other than police — to get the person to a place of safety, such as a private home, an emergency department or a sobering service.

A home or other safe private residence should remain the preferred and default safe place option, the report said.

It called for the threshold for police to detain an intoxicated person to be "strictly limited" to situations where there is believed to be a "serious and imminent risk of significant harm to the intoxicated individual or other individuals".

But Ms Kennedy said the proposed changes would not prevent police from arresting drunk people for other offences and it was important the safety of all first responders was protected.

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"So where an intoxicated person is engaging in behaviour that is a risk to community safety, police officers will still be able to arrest and charge the person where there's a range of other criminal offences," she said.

The report also contains recommendations to scale up cultural awareness, mental health and disability, and unconscious-bias training for officers, and provide regular refresher training.

Model 'achievable' because public drunkenness figures low

The panel has recommended the creation of seven new sobering services in high-demand areas to respond to the average 159 public intoxication incidents across the state each week, which spike in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning.

Extra support for alcohol or drug services would also be needed to ensure the new system brought an effective public health approach to the issue, the report said.

But Ms Kennedy said it was an achievable model in part because 159 people per week was a "relatively low" number.

The report found 6.5 per cent of people booked for public drunkenness made up more than a quarter of all offences, which Ms Kennedy said highlighted the need to connect people with ongoing treatment to solve chronic issues.

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The report underscored the devastating human cost of Victoria's public drunkenness laws, which it said had persisted despite a "strong, sustained and spirited" campaign to abolish them over nearly three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations.

"While the journey to decriminalisation in our state has been long and painful, Victoria now has the opportunity to leapfrog other Australian states and territories and be at the forefront with the development of an innovative and transformative health-based approach to public intoxication," the report said.

It also noted that while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 0.8 per cent of Victoria's population, they accounted for 6.5 per cent of recorded public drunkenness offences.

The report said data showed Sudanese and South Sudanese communities, people experiencing homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues were also over-represented in public drunkenness statistics.

Warning against interstate examples of protective custody

All Australian states and territories except Victoria and Queensland have already abolished public drunkenness as a criminal offence, but the report warns against the forms of "protective custody" some jurisdictions have replaced it with.

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While the laws were introduced in a bid to ensure police had the power to apprehend people as a "last resort", the report said the model had still seen disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being taken into police cells.

"Ultimately, while various policy responses implemented in other jurisdictions have purported to decriminalise public drunkenness, in practice the measures that have been adopted have perpetuated a punitive, criminal justice approach that conceives of people intoxicated in public as antisocial, dangerous and a risk to public safety," the report said.

The report suggests the power for police to detain an intoxicated individual at serious risk of harming themselves or others be limited to an hour, with upward referral within Victoria Police required to extend that time.

Emphasising the importance of building localised, culturally safe systems that are co-designed with Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, the report suggests a two-year transition period is needed.

New laws to be introduced before the end of year

The Government has embraced the framework suggested by the panel and Attorney-General Jill Hennessy has said legislation to decriminalise public drunkenness will be introduced to Parliament before the end of the year.

"Those who are intoxicated in public need our help to be safe and be well," she said in a statement.

"The Aboriginal community has long advocated for these unfair and outdated laws to be overhauled.

"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."

The Government said it had allocated $15 million to "kickstart" the new model by promoting therapeutic and safer pathways to help people who were intoxicated in public.

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