The Victorian Government has confirmed it will proceed with a plan to decriminalise public drunkenness and will not add any new police powers in its place.
Police will retain their current powers to arrest anyone who is violent, but the Government says drunkenness itself will be treated as a health issue instead of a policing issue, arguing policing has a “disproportionate impact” on First Nations people.
The Victorian Government first committed to remove public drunkenness as an offence in 2019.
The Government was motivated by the death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in 2017. Day died in custody after she was arrested on a train for drunkenness and taken to a police cell, where she was not provided sufficient care.
Repealing public drunkenness offences was also a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which concluded in 1991.
Despite its commitment over three years ago, the Government has yet to enact the change. Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes yesterday confirmed plans to do so in November.
Symes said the change would ensure alcoholism is treated as “a health issue… to ensure that people who are drunk aren’t sobering up in police cells”.
The Government plans to fund health and “outreach” responses, including ‘sobering up centres’ and workers to help people get home.
No new powers
Symes also confirmed police would not be given any alternative arrest powers, for example the power to force drunk people to ‘move on’ from a public place.
Alternative powers were introduced when NSW repealed drunkenness offences in 1979, but Symes said the Government’s view is this “undermines the whole purpose of decriminalisation” and would mean “people, particularly Aboriginal people, are still put unnecessarily in cells”.
Police will retain existing powers to arrest anyone, including drunk people, for violence or for ‘disturbing the peace’.
The announcement was welcomed by Sue-Anne Hunter, Acting Chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Victoria’s formal truth-telling body. Hunter called the change “long overdue” and called on the Government to go further. “Abolishing public drunkenness laws is an important step – but only one step,” Hunter said.
She called on the Government to reform bail laws and raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.
The announcement was also welcomed by Tanya Day’s family. On Twitter, Tanya’s daughter Apryl Louise Day called it “a huge win for our family and community… our mother would still be here with us today if Victoria Police had treated her condition seriously and cared for her with a public health response… No person should ever be locked up just for being drunk in public”.
Day said her family had not received “a public apology or acknowledgement of the role police played in our mother’s death” and the family continued to campaign for “independent oversight and accountability”.
Victoria’s Police Association said it supports decriminalising public drunkenness but said it was “dangerous and irresponsible” not to add any alternative arrest powers.
Police Association Secretary Wayne Gatt called it a “tragedy waiting to happen… Police will [now] only respond once a crime is committed. That is, when it’s too late”.
Shadow Police Minister Brad Battin told TDA the Opposition had “no issue at all” with decriminalising public drunkenness but supported the Police Association’s calls for alternative arrest powers, calling for “training, trust and common sense in police”.
He also warned a “health response” would place additional strain on the state’s health system and criticised the Government for failing to confirm details about its promised sobering-up centres.