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Seeing the clear light of day: expert reference group on decriminalising public drunkenness

Report to the Victorian Attorney-General
Deaths in custody First Peoples incarceration Alcoholism CALD Drugs and alcohol First Peoples health Victoria

This report has been prepared by the expert reference group (ERG) appointed to advise the Victorian government on the decriminalisation of public drunkenness and the development of an alternative health-based response. The ERG engaged in a detailed consultation process to progress understanding of the issues associated with adopting a public health approach to public intoxication and prepare their advice and recommendations to government.

Key Findings/Recommendations:

  • Yorta Yorta woman Ms Day’s death reflects a much larger, systemic issue across Victoria. What the data in this report presents is that the criminalisation of public drunkenness discriminates against vulnerable people, and in particular Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, Sudanese and South Sudanese communities, people experiencing homelessness, substance abuse and people experiencing mental health.
  • An effective health-based approach demands a cultural shift in the characterisation of intoxication as a health rather than a law enforcement issue. Primary First Responders should be personnel from health or community services, such as outreach homelessness programs, alcohol and drug services, and Aboriginal Controlled Community Organisations (ACCOs).
  •  Broader prevention strategies to address the underlying causes of high-risk drinking and harm minimisation approaches form a key part of a public health approach to public intoxication. Public awareness campaigns focused on primary prevention health initiatives that relate to the prevention of public intoxication play an important role in a public health approach.
  • Most Australian states and territories that have decriminalised public drunkenness and introduced a form of protective custody legislation, continue to see the use of police cells for public drunkenness. While these reforms were introduced with the aim of ensuring police had powers to apprehend individuals as a last resort in order to keep them and the community safe, it is clear that decriminalisation approaches still result in large numbers of people being taken into police cells.

The major thrust of this report's recommendations is clear – an effective health-based service system response to public intoxication is absolutely essential for proposed reforms to be effective. Cultural safety considerations must be at the core of both design and implementation. This requires ongoing consultation and co-design with health services and their staff and with particularly affected communities, such as Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, to ensure that localised responses are developed that are tailored and effective.

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