Bourke St tragedy bail laws face reform

Victoria could walk back its strict bail laws with pressure mounting over their unintended consequences for disadvantaged groups.

The state government has signalled it will consider bail-related legislative changes after coroner Simon McGregor releases findings next week into the death of Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson.

The 37-year-old died in her cell at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in January 2020, after being arrested three days earlier on suspicion of shoplifting and denied bail.

Mr McGregor will find Ms Nelson's death was preventable and she was treated cruelly and inhumanely, The Age newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Among his recommendations, Mr McGregor will call for reform to Victoria's bail laws.

The laws were strengthened after James Gargasoulas drove into a busy Bourke Street Mall in January 2017, killing six people and injuring dozens of others.Gargasoulas was on bail at the time of the attack.

The Victorian government needs to own up and fix its mistake, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight said.

"Next week the Coroners Court will hand down findings for the inquest into the passing of Veronica Nelson and I hope that is the catalyst we need to fix Victoria broken bail laws," she said.

Any findings and recommendations from the coroner will be considered by the Andrews government.

"Fundamentally, our bail laws need to protect the community without having a disproportionate or unintended impact on those accused of low-level offending who do not present a risk to community safety," a government spokesman said.

"We know that more needs to be done to address the over-representation of Aboriginal Victorians in the justice system."

Liberty Victoria's Sam Norton said the state got the balance wrong on bail laws after Bourke Street, allowing for repeat offenders to be held on remand for low-level crimes such as shoplifting under the reverse onus test.

"Engaging in law reform in response to utterly appalling acts of an individual is a dangerous business," he told AAP.

"Bad cases make bad law."

Since the Bail Act was amended in January 2018, Corrections Victoria figures show the proportion of unsentenced people in Victorian prisons has risen from 34.1 per cent to 40.8 per cent in December.

There were more unsentenced Aboriginal people in Victoria's prisons than those sentenced for eight of the first nine months of last year, according to Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

The inquest into Ms Nelson's death heard too many people charged with minor offences were being unnecessarily brought before Melbourne's Bail and Remand Court, having to demonstrate exceptional circumstances to be released.

"The Bail Act must be amended to ensure that only those who pose a specific and immediate risk to the physical safety of another person or pose a demonstrable flight risk can be denied bail," Law Institute of Victoria president Tania Wolff said.

Shadow Attorney-General Michael O'Brien said the Victorian opposition would consider any sensible reform proposals, as long as they did not put community safety at risk.

The Victorian Greens plan to introduce their own bill to parliament if Labor doesn't act first, criticising the major parties for their tough-on-crime stances.

First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria co-chair Marcus Stewart said the laws were a prime example of "political desires to look tough trumping the need for sensible policy settings".

"We need reform and we need it now," he said.