Victoria decriminalizes public intoxication, prioritizing support and safety over arrests, with a focus on Indigenous communities.
In a significant change set to take effect from Tuesday, November 7, public drunkenness will no longer be considered a criminal offence in the state of Victoria, Australia. The move comes four years after the state committed to transitioning from a criminal justice approach to a public health approach to address this issue.
Under the new legislation, police will no longer be authorized to arrest individuals for being intoxicated in public and detain them in police cells. Instead, individuals found intoxicated in public will be offered support to go to a safe space, such as a sobering up center.
It’s important to note that police will still retain the authority to arrest individuals for public drunkenness if they are found to be committing an offence.
The choice of November 7 as the implementation date for these new laws may seem unconventional, but it wasn’t the initial plan of the Victorian government. Originally scheduled to begin on November 7 of the previous year, the introduction was delayed by a year due to COVID-19, coincidentally placing it on Melbourne Cup day.
The decision to decriminalize public drunkenness is rooted in the belief that responding to this issue through a criminal approach is inappropriate and inconsistent with current community standards. The disproportionate impact that criminalizing public drunkenness has had on Indigenous people, notably exemplified by the 2017 death in custody of Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Tanya Day, has been a driving force behind this change. Aunty Tanya Day’s tragic death while in police custody highlighted the need for reform, as it was found that police didn’t properly check on her or provide adequate care while she was intoxicated in a cell.
The government’s commitment to change is aimed at treating public drunkenness as a public health issue that requires a public health response, ensuring community safety and reducing the risk of individuals dying in police custody. Day’s family welcomed the reforms, noting that “no person should ever be locked up for being drunk, or for being perceived to be drunk, in public spaces.”
While the changes have garnered significant support, concerns have been raised regarding the readiness of the state of Victoria for the new legislation. The primary sobering up centre in Collingwood will not be open on November 7, and as of late October, it lacked a concrete opening date. Instead, the centre’s operator will focus on patrolling the city’s streets with up to 10 teams, each equipped with a vehicle, nurse, and alcohol and drug specialist.
In response to these changes, a spokesperson from Victoria Police outlined their plans for Melbourne Cup Carnival, highlighting that there will be a visible police presence at the event, including general duties officers, Highway Patrol members, Mounted Branch, and the Public Order Response Team. With the decriminalization of public drunkenness on Cup Day, police officers will encourage intoxicated individuals to seek support and assistance from family or friends, and there will be the option of referring them to the public intoxication response service overseen by the Department of Health.
However, if individuals refuse assistance and do not pose a risk to others, there will no longer be a role for police in these circumstances. In case a drunk person commits a criminal offence, police will act swiftly to address the situation.
Additionally, the police have been working closely with event organizers and licensed venues to ensure their compliance with responsible service of alcohol regulations. Serving alcohol to intoxicated individuals is an offence, and licensees are obligated not to allow drunk people to remain on their premises.
In summary, Victoria’s move to decriminalize public drunkenness reflects a shift towards a public health approach to this issue, with a focus on safety and support rather than criminalization. As the state prepares for the changes, the role of police during Melbourne Cup Carnival and similar events will evolve to encourage assistance and support for intoxicated individuals while upholding public safety and legal standards.