Victorian Government Betrays Aboriginal Children

Today, the Attorney-General, Jaclyn Symes, announced her decision to ditch vital bail reforms for children that would have reduced the over-incarceration of Aboriginal children and instead announced a trial of a surveillance project to monitor children.

This trial could see kids being subject to monitoring and surveillance without ever being found guilty of anything. The Victorian Governments refusal to implement bail reforms which have been recommended by VALS, and countless other human rights and social justice organisations is backwards and archaic. This decision is a betrayal of all children and young people whose experience of abuse and trauma has had undeniable consequences for their emotional development and affected their ability to respond appropriately, rendering them more likely to offend. Many of these children have been subjected to failures of our care and protection system, alienations from school and a lack of adequate resourcing in the mental health and disability sector. Children deserve to grow up in supported environments and connected to culture, community and kin so that they can build fulfilling and productive lives. Decisions like this contributed to the continual over-policing and over-incarceration of Aboriginal children, stealing that future from them and decimating Aboriginal families and communities.

The Victorian Government promised to remove the reverse onus provisions for children in the Bail Act, with exceptions for homicide and terrorism charges, but they have now backflipped on this. Reverse onus provisions force an individual to prove why they should be on bail, rather than the prosecutor and police having to prove why they should be deprived of their liberty. This has meant a significant number of people being deprived of their liberty who have never been found guilty of a crime. This latest announcement means that kids will be subject to surveillance and electronic monitoring without being found guilty by the courts.

It was these provisions which led the Victorian Coroner to refer to the Bail Act as a “complete and unmitigated disaster”, and they are responsible for driving a huge increase in the prison population of Victoria. While VALS wanted the reverse onus provisions removed entirely for adults and children alike, the Victorian Government’s promised position would have helped get many children out of a life-long entanglement in criminal legal system, enabling them to get the supports that all children need to give them a chance to build a better life.

VALS has engaged with the government in good faith over the last 5 years during consultations on last year’s Bail Amendment Bill and the upcoming Youth Justice Bill. At no time did the Government let us know that they were considering implementing these Big Brother tactics. Even as recently as late February we were told by the Victorian Government in writing that they were progressing the much-needed bail reforms for children as they were originally proposed in the Bail Amendment Bill. It was only late last night that we were told that they were going to backflip on the multiple promises they made to Aboriginal communities.

Last year, the Victorian Government campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum for a Voice to Parliament. Since then, they have completely ignored a crucial report by the Yoorrook Justice Commission and they are now breaking a longstanding promise to Aboriginal people. How can we meaningfully walk down the path of Treaty with a government so willing to walk away from their commitments? 

Electronic monitoring of people on bail is not a new idea. It has been tried in many places and it has failed. The Victorian Government itself planned a similar trial for children on parole in 2018 but abandoned it after listening to experts and community organisations as we know these surveillance systems simply do not work and instead cause further harm to both individuals and to communities. Some studies have shown that because electronic monitoring is so restrictive and intense, that it ends up being another form of incarceration rather than an alternative to incarceration. Electronic monitoring systems have been found to have many of the same harmful impacts of incarceration and they replicate the same racism and discrimination as every other form of policing and incarceration. Electronic monitoring systems are also notorious for system failures with constant hardware and software issues making them incredibly ineffective. The hyper policing of people with an electronic monitor often sets them up to fail and becomes a pipeline straight into prison – let alone the marginalisation and stigma that comes with being subjected to electronic monitoring.

In the US, electronic monitoring has become a huge private industry and cash-making venture, and we are concerned about what deals may have been made when the Victorian Government cooked up this scheme behind closed doors.

The Victorian Government has constantly accepted the harms associated with the over-policing of children. The need to reduce over-policing of children to give them a better chance in life and make communities safer is a basic principle of the upcoming Youth Justice Bill that the Victorian Government has made us work on for 5 years, sucking up our already scarce resources.

The Attorney-General has also made this decision at a time when the Victorian Government funding for Balit Ngulu, our dedicated legal practice for Aboriginal children, is about to expire. Instead of finding ways to track children, the Victorian Government should be looking for ways to fund the services those children need to be successfully diverted away from the criminal legal system.

Balit Ngulu has achieved amazing results and helped many Aboriginal children turn their life around. Balit Ngulu has ensured that many children got cautions, diversions or bail when police and prosecutors were intent on much more punitive measures. This enabled those children to go on to have productive and fulfilling lives supported by their community. Balit Ngulu also provides holistic, trauma-informed support for these children so that they can reconnect to culture, community and Country – the things that make them strong.

Quotes Attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:

“Jacinta Allan is developing a terrible track record as Premier already when it comes to law reform. At every turn, she has picked the meanest and most punitive policy – whether its punitive parole laws or electronic monitoring, the Premier seems intent on making Victoria a penal colony once again.”

“We are devastated that we trusted the Allan Government, and they have completely betrayed abused and traumatised children in the hope it will win them votes at the next election. I wonder if it’s worth it in the end?”

“Electronic monitoring has been tried a million times. It does not work. It is a failed idea that only the most desperate politicians cling to when they are too scared to make the right decision. This Government has even tried electronic monitoring for children in the past and ditched the idea pretty quickly after getting a few media headlines.”

“Jacinta Allan has certainly been trying to calm the horses in her own caucus in recent weeks, and it seems like this announcement is more about internal Labor Party politics and the Premier’s safety from her own MPs, than it is about community safety.”

“This decision will impact on the great work Aboriginal Communities have been doing to stem the tide of over-policing and over-incarceration of their youth. This is a betrayal of the promises they have made under the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and the National Agreement for Closing the Gap. It is a senseless decision.”

“All Victorians would have been safer if the Allan Government delivered the bail reforms for children that they promised so many times, and if they invested in services like VALS’ dedicated service for Aboriginal children – Balit Ngulu – which keeps children out of the criminal legal system, not entrenched it.”

“Instead of giving Aboriginal people a voice to parliament, Jacinta Allan has sent us a message from Parliament, and that message is that abused and traumatised children are expendable.”


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