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Bail reforms do 'half the job': Indigenous advocates

Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS

Pressure is ramping up on Victorian MPs to go further with bail reforms as grief-stricken loved ones of Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson take to the steps of parliament.

Victoria's lower house will this week begin debating a bill to make it easier for low-level offenders to get bail, reducing the number of Victorians languishing on remand.

The death of Ms Nelson has been the catalyst for changes to bail laws, which were tightened in 2018 following the Bourke Street rampage and later dubbed an unmitigated disaster by a coroner.

Ms Nelson was arrested in December 2019 for breaching bail and suspicion of shoplifting and represented herself in a bail application, which was denied.

Following dozens of calls for help, she died in her cell at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre days later from complications of Wilkie's syndrome while suffering heroin withdrawal.

Under the incoming Bail Act bill, people accused of crimes unlikely to receive prison time will no longer be remanded in jail while they await their sentence.

But the changes do not fully implement Poccum's law, a proposal named after Ms Nelson's childhood nickname and backed by 56 Indigenous, legal and human rights groups.

Unlike the government's proposed reforms, it would scrap the reverse onus test and introduce a presumption in favour of bail for adults.

Ms Nelson's mother Aunty Donna Nelson and partner Uncle Percy Lovett were joined by dozens of Indigenous advocates outside parliament on Tuesday to renew their calls for all of Poccum's law to be enacted.

"If the government is serious about protecting our people, they must implement Poccum's law - not just some of it," she said.

Failing that, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight is calling for a mandatory statutory review of the legislation 12 months after it comes into effect.

"We can't fix a disaster with a bill that only cherry-picks and does half the job," she said.

"We need the Victorian parliament to improve the government's bill so that we can fix this disaster."

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes was tentative to include a statutory review in the bill but gave a commitment to continually monitor the affects of bail laws.

"Statutory reviews can cause problems ... when you haven't had enough time to play it out," she said.

Once the bill enters the upper house, the Greens plan to move amendments to mandate a 12-month statutory review as well as ongoing reviews.

"If the government can learn anything from this really sorry saga, it should be that each time they tamper with the Bail Act it is probably not going to be the last," Greens MP Tim Read said.

The Victorian opposition is yet to announce its position on the reforms but state Liberal leader John Pesutto has indicated a willingness to work with the government.