CALLS for public drunkenness to be decriminalised in Victoria have been echoing for about 30 years.
The Law Reform Commission recommended the offense be abolished in 1989. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody backed those calls in 1991, dubbing public drunkenness ‘by far the most potentially significant area’ of reform to divert Aboriginal people from police custody.
It highlighted the need for adequately funded alternatives to police custody to care for and treat intoxicated people.
Alcohol use was the dominant reason for custody in the cases subject to investigation, the Royal Commission found.
At the time, 57 per cent of Aboriginal custodies were related to intoxication – 30 per cent more than non-Aboriginal custodies.
The Victorian parliament was then considering a bill decriminalising public drunkenness, which met with defeat in the Legislative Council.
There was little shift in the legislation by 2000, when the Victorian Parliament’s Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee launched an inquiry into public drunkenness.
After 18 months, in which the committee’s members came to appreciate the complexities of the issue, the recommendation was made to decriminalise public drunkenness offenses.
“This recommendation, however, comes with a strong caveat,” the committee stated.
“Decriminalisation should not take effect until a raft of alternative measures, such as the establishment of sobering up centres, are put in place.”
The decriminalisation of public drunkenness has since been recommended numerous times, but lingered in Victoria all the same.
Coroner Caitlin English intends to recommend scrapping the offense as she investigates the December 2017 death of Yorta Yorta grandmother Tanya Day, who sustained an injury while in police custody at Castlemaine for public drunkenness and later died in hospital.
One can only hope this latest recommendation will result in positive change.
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