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Melbourne Cup to coincide with change in law on drunkenness: What comes next?

First Nations communities have long been campaigning for the law reform which was flagged to come into effect a year ago.

Public drunkenness will no longer be a crime in Victoria from Tuesday onwards, with the change coming into effect on the same day as this year's Melbourne Cup.

The law reform has been years in the making despite the odd timing, with a high-profile death in custody of Aboriginal woman Tanya Day in 2017 prompting reinvigorated campaigns to decriminalise public intoxication. It is believed the law disproportionately impacted Indigenous Australians.

The state now plans to adopt a more health-led approach to the issue rather than a criminal justice one.

What you need to know

  • The law reform was initially set to come into effect on November 7, 2022 — the Monday after last year's Melbourne Cup — however, delays pushed the date back to November 7 this year.

  • Victoria is one of the last Australian jurisdictions to decriminalise public intoxication, second last only to Queensland.

  • The change will mean those in Victoria will no longer be arrested or face a penalty of up to $1,160 if found publicly intoxicated. Victorian Police will instead assist an individual by contacting a loved one or encouraging them to get in touch with sobering services.

  • However, there are concerns there has not been enough public awareness of the change, especially as it comes into affect on the same day as the Melbourne Cup.

Read more: Drunkenness law change on schedule

Displays of public drunkenness at the Melbourne Cup.
Public drunkenness will no longer be illegal in Victoria, with the law reform coming into effect the same day as the Melbourne Cup. Source: Getty

🗣️ What they said

Victorian Police ahead of Melbourne Cup, 2023: "With public drunkenness decriminalised on Cup Day, members will continue to encourage drunk people to seek support and assistance from family or friends. There will also be the option of referring them to the public intoxication response service overseen by the Department of Health."

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan said ahead of Tuesday: "We are not going to continue where we have laws in this state that disproportionately see Indigenous Victorians end up in jail cells, and very seriously significant consequences come as a result of that."

Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gabrielle Williams when the law to decriminalise public drunkenness was proposed in 2021: "We have worked with and listened to the Aboriginal community to deliver real change. These reforms will save lives and provide fair and culturally appropriate care – that's the right thing to do."

🤔 Why should I care?

Public intoxication has long been viewed to have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous Victorians, with the Alcohol and Drug Foundation pointing to 2019 research which showed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were over nine times more likely to serve a sentence for a public disorder offence, such as public intoxicated, compared to other Victorians — despite only making up 0.8 per cent of the state's population.

Protesters hold signs as they campaign to decriminalise public drunkenness.
The death in custody of Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Tanya Day prompted the Victorian government to decriminalise public drunkenness.Source: 9News

The death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day six years ago invigorated campaigns to decriminalise public drunkenness. Ms Day was found and subsequently arrested by police for being intoxicated while asleep on a train, and was taken to a police station where she tripped and landed on her head, resulting in a fatal brain injury. However, the call for law reform long predates her death.

"This was first recommended by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991," Professor of Criminology Lorana Bartels from Australian National University told Yahoo News Australia. "So it's quite astonishing that it's taken the Victorian Government 32 years to act on this recommendation."

"There have certainly been countless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria who were brought unnecessarily into the net of the justice system as a result of this, and in some cases, most tragically, like in the case of Aunty Tanya, who lost their lives as a result of law."

Read more: Health leaders outline how Victoria's response will work

⏭️ So what next?

From Tuesday, Victorians cannot be prosecuted for public drunkenness and interference from police will be different going forward.

Victoria Police can still arrest Victorians if they are intoxicated and are committing another crime, such as breach of peace, however they will no longer have an active role other than to ensure safety.

The state government has invested in 'sobering-up centres' where intoxicated people can go to recover. These centres include beds, food, water and showers and will provide a safer alternative to a police cell for intoxicated individuals.

A person can generally access the service if they meet the following criteria, according to Victorian Department of Health:

  • are intoxicated in public

  • are within the service region

  • do not have urgent health needs that require an emergency response

  • consent to receive the service

  • do not pose a serious and imminent safety risk to themselves or other individuals.

Members of the public have been encouraged to still contact emergency services if they encounter an intoxicated person who they believe requires medical assistance, or poses a danger to themselves or others.

Read more: Sobering up centre won't open before drunkenness change

💬 Conversation starter

Since the 1980s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have accounted for 19 per cent of all nationwide deaths in custody, and 22 per cent of deaths in police custody – despite only making up 3.2 percent of Australia's population, according to Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

"There are plenty of people who are intoxicated in public, who do not end up inside a police cell ... Over the years health based responses have been taken, or a blind eye, in fact, turned in relation to some members of society and not to other members of society," Professor Bartels said.

"You don't see the police cells in Melbourne full of non Indigenous people on Melbourne Cup day despite the very public displays of intoxication."

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