New laws to abolish the crime of public drunkenness in Victoria will be introduced by the end of the year, following the release of an independent report that advocates a health-based response instead of putting people into a jail cell to sober up.
To achieve reform, the Seeing the Clear Light of Day: Expert Reference Group on Decriminalising Public Drunkenness report proposes developing a new public health model, to be implemented over the next two years, that promotes a healthcare response rather than a law enforcement one.
In order to eliminate the use of jail cells, the report says safe places must be made available for intoxicated people to be transported to that are accessible and appropriate to meet their health and safety needs.
Under the proposed health model, places of safety include the intoxicated person’s home, an emergency department or urgent care centre if urgent medical care is required, or a sobering service if they require a short recovery period and cannot be cared for elsewhere.
The report says seven new sobering services, staffed by multidisciplinary teams that should at a minimum include a health practitioner such as a registered nurse, would need to be implemented under the model in high demand areas to boost the capacity to meet demand across the state.
Data outlined in the report states that there is about 159 incidences of public intoxication per week, with the vast majority of people (84%) entering custody in such circumstances only once.
Cultural safety considerations must be at the core of both the design and implementation of the public health approach, the report states, which would require ongoing consultation and co-design with health services and staff, especially affected communities such as Aboriginal and CALD communities, to ensure a tailored and effective response.
Importantly, the public health model would also include implementing broader prevention strategies to support people who present intoxicated that experience complex health and welfare challenges that contribute to their drinking patterns.
Meanwhile, under the proposed health model, Victoria’s six emergency department ‘crisis hubs’, to be staffed with specialised nurses, would also play a greater role in addressing the sobering-up needs of clients.
As part of its 2018-19 State Budget, the Andrews Government announced funding for Mental Health and AOD responses across six public hospital emergency departments – Monash Medical Centre, St Vincent’s Hospital, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, University Hospital in Geelong, Sunshine Hospital and Frankston Hospital.
The hubs, which will operate 24-hours a day, aim to improve emergency treatment for people presenting with mental health and AOD issues by providing more timely assessment and specialist care.
The report recommends the Victorian Government expands the Mental Health and Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Hubs model of care to enable them to provide sobering services, which may require additional government investment.
All Australian states and territories, except Victoria and Queensland, have already decriminalised public drunkenness. Aboriginal communities have advocated for the reform for decades and abolishing the offence was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody three decades ago.
The Andrews Government welcomed the independent report and its plans for “long overdue” reform. The Victorian Budget 2020/21 provides $16 million to kick-start the new model, with the government pledging to review all of the Expert Reference Group’s (ERG) 86 recommendations.
“Those who are intoxicated in public need our help to be safe and be well,” Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said.
“The Aboriginal community has long advocated for these unfair and outdated laws to be overhauled. This legislation is an important first step as we move towards a health-focused model which has the best interests of Aboriginal Victorians at heart.”
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (Victorian Branch) also welcomed the two-year plan to implement a health model that moves away from putting people in a jail cell for public drunkenness and the Andrews Government’s commitment to review all of the report’s recommendations.
“Thirty years is too long to wait, but it is appropriate we wait just a little longer while the measures are put in place to support police and health services so they can provide safe care. Importantly, this legislation will benefit many and not just those from Indigenous communities,” ANMF (Victorian Branch) Secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said in a statement.
“This is a much-welcomed new public health model response and a natural extension of the Andrews Government’s bold drug and alcohol reform agenda.
“Nurses know that a health model rather than a criminal response is the best way to protect the community and the people who are intoxicated.”