Sweeping changes for Vic justice system
Victoria’s coroner has called for sweeping changes to the state’s justice system following a five-week inquest into the death of an Aboriginal woman in custody.
Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta wife, Veronica Nelson (37), died alone in her cell at Dame Phyllis Frost Center in January 2020.
Ms. Nelson, who suffered from severe opioid withdrawal, begged for help 49 times in 36 hours before her death.
Coroner Simon McGregor declared on Monday that Ms. Nelson’s death in January 2020 was preventable, called for bail law reform and found that corrections did not provide her with adequate health care.
He handed down 39 recommendations, including an urgent overhaul of the state’s bail law — widely known as the toughest in the country.
The State Government made changes to the Bail Act in 2018 under expert advice in response to the 2017 Bourke Street massacre.
“The Bail Act has a discriminatory impact on First Nations people, resulting in grossly disproportionate rates of detention, the most egregious of which affects alleged offenders who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women,” Mr McGregor said.
He said before those changes, Indigenous people made up 8.2 per cent of the state’s prison population and First Nations women made up 10 per cent of female inmates.
But the number of Aboriginal women almost doubled after the 2018 changes, and of those, 61 per cent of unconvicted women were held on charges that did not involve violence.
He also recommends that the Victorian Government, in consultation with Victoria Police, the Department of Justice, Department of Health and top Aboriginal organizations develop a review and implementation strategy for the 339 recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody .
Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight called on the government to fix bail laws, overhaul prison healthcare and address systemic racism within the justice system.
“Victoria’s politicians need to look at the blood on their hands and decide to take a better path,” she said.
“There must be effective, independent and culturally appropriate oversight of all deaths in custody. It should not fall to families and their lawyers to push for proper investigations into deaths in custody.”
Law Institute of Victoria president Tania Wolff said the 2018 changes had unintended consequences that needed to be rectified.
“At worst, those amendments aimed at keeping the community safe were a contributing factor to the preventable death in custody of Veronica Nelson,” she said.
“We also need to reflect on the impact of stigma and the way we as a society view people who are challenged by addiction or mental health issues.”
The Victorian Government last week admitted it was considering changes to current bail laws.
Ms Nelson’s cousin Shaurntae Lyons said she had little confidence in the implementation of recommendations.
“Thirty years ago my elders were more confident than me, the recommendations were made 30 years ago, how confident do you think I am? Probably less confident than you, it’s not confident at all,” she said outside court.
Victoria Police said it would take time to consider the coroner’s findings and recommendations.