VALS is calling on the Victorian government to make urgent changes to the criminal justice system, following two weeks of startling evidence given to the Yoorrook Justice Commission.
Yoorrook Commissioners heard emotional and damning evidence from Aboriginal people and experts in the criminal justice and child protection areas which highlighted the damaging effects the systems continue to have on Aboriginal communities in Victoria.
Premier Daniel Andrews committed to overhauling the child protection system the day before the hearings started. After two weeks of evidence about the need for both transformational long-term change and immediate reforms, the Government has still said nothing about the criminal legal system.
Yoorrook has heard evidence of judges telling an Aboriginal woman that she was too pale-skinned to be sentenced as an Aboriginal person. There has been evidence of police ignoring complaints made by Aboriginal people, dismissing them as unfounded even after the courts found otherwise. The Commission has heard about Aboriginal people remanded every day for offences like shoplifting, because of Victoria’s draconian bail laws.
University of Melbourne Associate Dean of Indigenous Programs Dr Eddie Cubillo told the Commission that “Aboriginal people are always talking about these things, giving evidence, and getting nothing.
“Aboriginal people have a lot at stake when engaging in this kind of advocacy. It’s not a game for us, it’s our family and our kids’ lives that are stake.”
Yuin woman Aunty Vickie Roach told the Commissioners that “we need to be able to heal ourselves, and heal generations that are still being damaged by the current system that society seems loath to dismantle.”
We need a commitment to work with Aboriginal communities on a genuine transformation of our legal system designed, led and controlled by communities, and founded on First Nations Law, Traditions and Culture through a Justice Treaty.
A new system would end the focus on police and prisons, and prioritise culturally safe access to the support Aboriginal people need. It would help eradicate racism, by placing power with Aboriginal communities instead of with lobbies like the Police Union.
But in the meantime there are urgent changes that need to occur. We need immediate reform to address bail laws, prison healthcare, the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and police oversight.
This is not the first time these issues have been raised. The Victorian Parliament has published a report on the criminal justice system which the Government has not responded to. There are countless recommendations from coronial inquests into the deaths of Aboriginal people in custody. There have been letters and petitions from campaigns to raise the age, fix the bail laws and create independent police oversight. There are still, after more than 30 years, the unimplemented recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
The Premier must respond and commit to the same kind of transformational change he has promised for the child protection system. It’s time for the current political party, who have been in power in Victoria for 19 of the last 23 years, to finally make the changes Victorian Communities need in order to say that we are all truly equal before the law.
We cannot wait for Treaty, or for the end of Yoorrook’s truth-telling process, which should be given more time to run its full course.
Quotes attributable to VALS CEO Nerita Waight:
“Aboriginal people are telling our truths. At Yoorrook, witnesses and Commissioners have been in tears with the pain of reliving those stories. work. Is the Premier listening?”
“Daniel Andrews was eager to make commitments about child protection, and we will work with him and Aboriginal Communities to make it happen. Now he needs to make the same kind of commitment to transform Victoria’s unjust criminal legal system, and end Aboriginal deaths in custody, before another 30 years pass without any change.”
Quotes from VALS CEO Nerita Waight’s evidence given at Yoorrook:
“Australian society desperately needs to eradicate racism in all its forms. To achieve that, we need to aim higher than merely mitigating the harms of a colonial legal system.”
“We urge the Victorian Government and the Premier not to delay urgent reforms – Yoorrook will lay the groundwork for transformational changes to come, but there are immediate steps the Government needs to take today.”
“There is no justice for Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system – it is based on a colonial history which is racist, unjust and biased.”
“I see this Commission as a chance to not only transform the justice system, but to honour our communities, to honour our old people, to make sure that the people who have lost their lives that they get the chance to go home.”