Last week the Coroner found that Victoria’s bail laws were a “complete and unmitigated disaster” as part of the Inquest into the passing of Veronica Nelson.
Uncle Percy Lovett, Veronica’s partner, has been fighting to fix the systems that failed Veronica since she died at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre Prison on 2 January 2020.
Today, Uncle Percy and VALS visited the Victorian Parliament to hear what the Premier had to say about urgently needed bail reform. Victorian Greens justice spokesperson, Dr Tim Read, asked the Premier about bail reform on Uncle Percy’s behalf during question time.
Much of the Victorian Parliament has committed to bail reform in the wake of the Coroner’s scathing findings, although the Premier seemed to indicate he is not going to make the changes necessary to prevent further tragedy. Each day 36.5 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people are arrested and subject to the same punitive test as Veronica faced that tragic night. Each day we delay vulnerable Victorians are locked away from their families, their communities and their supports.
Experts warned that the Victorian Government’s punitive bail law reforms in 2017 and 2018 would have a devastating impact on communities, particularly groups that were already marginalised. The experts were right, but the government persisted down this punitive path regardless of the trauma and loss of life that was ahead.
Over 30 years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) recommended that imprisonment only be used as a last resort and that governments “revise any criteria which inappropriately restrict the granting of bail to Aboriginal people.” Victoria has done the opposite of what the Royal Commission recommended and instead has taken proactive measures to introduce a punitive bail system that has seen the unsentenced prison population grow dramatically. About half of the prison population in Victoria is currently held on remand – that means they are imprisoned despite not yet being found guilty of the charges that have been brought against them.
At times in 2022, 80% of Aboriginal women in Victoria’s prisons were being held on remand. Many of them were facing charges that would be unlikely to receive a prison sentence if they were found guilty. Many of them are victim-survivors of family violence and in need of government support services. Many of them are primary carers and denying them bail can lead to them losing housing and employment, which means their family lose necessary support.
One of the Coroners findings was that Victoria’s broken bail laws have had a “discriminatory impact on First Nations people resulting in grossly disproportionate rates of remand in custody” – particularly for Aboriginal women. The Coroner recommended that any provisions that discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people be urgently repealed.
Victoria’s broken bail laws are also an unsustainable expense. Victoria’s spending on prisons, courts and police has grown at double the rate of other jurisdictions in Australia over the last decade. VAGO published a report last year saying that Victoria Police could not prove any community benefit from the extra $2 billion they were given by the Victorian Government in 2017. It costs almost $17,000 a month to keep an adult in prison in Victoria according to the Productivity Commission. Across 2022, there was slightly less than 3000 people held on remand on average, according to Corrections Victoria data. That means Victoria spent about $50 million in 2022 to keep adults on remand. It costs over $5,000 a night to keep an Aboriginal child in prison. That means Victoria spends almost $30 million a year to keep an average of 10 Aboriginal children on remand each night.
Tinkering around the edges will not fix Victoria’s broken bail laws. Almost 3000 people are held on remand in Victoria each day, the problem cannot be solved by addressing individual circumstances only significant reforms can protect the rights and lives of all Victorians. VALS position is that the bail laws must be urgently amended to:
- Remove the presumption against bail
- Create a presumption in favour of bail for all offences, with the onus on the prosecution to demonstrate that bail should not be granted due to there being a specific and immediate risk to the physical safety of another person; a serious risk of interfering with a witness; or the person posing a demonstrable flight risk
- Clarify that “flight risk” is a risk that the person will flee the jurisdiction. Bail must not be refused due to a risk that the person will not attend court for other reasons
- Explicitly require that a person must not be remanded for an offence that is unlikely to result in a sentence of imprisonment and
- Remove the offences of committing an indictable offence while on bail, breaching bail conditions and failure to answer bail.
Our proposed changes would make Victoria’s bail laws more closely reflect the RCIADIC recommendations and international law. It would show that Victoria is committed to reforms that ensure fairness, ensure prison is only used as a last resort, help close the incarceration gap and – most importantly – afford Veronica the justice she was not afforded in life.
Quotes Attributable to Uncle Percy Lovett, partner of Veronica Nelson
“The Premier has got to change the bail laws, he just has to. They can’t just make small changes and then do nothing else. Everyone should be presumed innocent, they should have a right to get bail.”
“Veronica shouldn’t have been in prison, she should have been at home. If it weren’t for the bail laws, Veronica wouldn’t have been in prison, she would be alive.”
“I want to make sure no one else goes through what Veronica went through.”
“Veronica deserves the justice she didn’t get that day. When I was in court with Veronica when she applied for bail – no one asked Veronica proper questions, no one listened to her, no one cared.”
Quotes Attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of VALS
“Uncle Percy has been ceaseless in his fight for justice since Veronica died three years ago. His tremendous courage and humanity has helped break through a tough on crime political consensus and given Victoria an opportunity to fix Victoria’s broken bail laws.”
“Many of the politicians in Victoria’s Parliament voted for the 2017 and 2018 bail law changes that led to Veronica’s death. That should weigh heavily on their conscious. The Coroner called their bail laws a “complete and unmitigated disaster”. Now they have a chance to fix what they got wrong.”
“Politicians talk about community safety when debating bail laws, but which community’s safety are they talking about? Aboriginal women, like Veronica Nelson, aren’t safer. Aboriginal communities aren’t safer. Our communities are starved of resources and overpoliced.”
“The bail laws have had a huge toll on communities and it is also a huge cost on the governments budget. The cost of incarceration and the related costs for police and courts have drained millions and billions of taxpayers money. That money should have been spent on community services instead – that would have actually made communities stronger and safer.”
“If the Premier chooses to just tinker around the edges or focus on individual circumstances he will bungle this opportunity for good evidence based reform and there will be no justice for any Victorian”