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‘Long overdue’: public drunkenness to be decriminalised in Victoria

Ms Day’s daughter, Apryl Watson, welcomed the announcement but said it was too late for her family.

“Ultimately if the law had been abolished back when the royal commission had recommended it, mum would still here today,” she said.

“We had a beautiful, loving, bubbly strong mother who isn’t here anymore because she was targeted for public drunkenness.”

Ms Watson said the law had been used by police to target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“We see it time and time again. At the time of mum’s arrest, Aboriginal people were 11 times more likely to be arrested than non-Aboriginal women.

“It’s actually Aboriginal people who are targeted by this law and Aboriginal people who are dying because of this law.”

Ms Watson agreed that public drunkenness should be treated as a health issue.

“There’s a lot more work to be done,” she said.

“Aboriginal people need our voices heard about what’s actually affecting us. We need to be in charge and have a say as to what those alternatives are. We don’t need people speaking for us, we can speak for ourselves. We can also work towards putting things in place for Aboriginal people.

“We still don’t have a mother and everything we do is for her and we just hope that mum gets every bit of respect, dignity and justice that she deserves. She definitely didn’t get it in that time she was in Victoria Police custody.”

Acting state coroner Caitlin English has ruled she will allow witnesses to be questioned about whether racism played a role in the decision to arrest Ms Day.

Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said this was an important reform.

“The Andrews Labor government acknowledges the disproportionate impact the current laws have had on Aboriginal people and pay tribute to the community members who have advocated for this change.”

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said changing this law will save lives.

“We’ll be working carefully with the experts, including health services, Aboriginal groups and Victoria Police on how we can better protect vulnerable people who need support, not punishment.”

Decriminalising public drunkenness was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that took place more than three decades ago.

Liberty Victoria senior vice president Jamie Gardiner said this has been a long time coming.

“I can remember in the 1980s, agitating with others to end the public drunkenness laws. Most other states have done so. It’s long overdue reform … It is astonishing that it has taken so long.”

Mr Gardiner described it as a “racist” law.

“How often have drunken [non-Aboriginal] barristers or doctors or politicians walking in the streets, publicly drunk been arrested in the way that a Tanya Day was put in the cells? The law is inherently discriminatory.

“The result of putting people into a police lockup is to increase whatever mental health issues they have. It is harmful, and it can lead to a spiral of ill health, homelessness, perhaps of criminality which would never have occurred if a person had simply been taken to a detox centre or a health centre or for that matter home.”

Human Rights Law Centre legal director Ruth Barson, who is representing the Day family at the coronial inquest, welcomed the government’s announcement and said the announcement was a testament to the Day family’s activism.

“The Government is doing the right thing repealing these discriminatory laws and putting in place an Aboriginal-led, public health response. If somebody is too drunk, they should be taken home or somewhere safe, they should not be behind bars,” said Ms Barson.

“We’re now looking to the coronial inquest for answers on how Tanya Day went from safely sleeping on a train to dying in police custody, and who should be held responsible for her tragic death.”

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