Victoria unprepared to decriminalise public drunkenness, warn police and doctors


Under the new Summary Offences Amendment (Decriminalisation of Public Drunkenness Bill 2020), being intoxicated in public will not be a criminal offence. It will instead be treated as a medical issue, with diversionary pathways to outreach services including sober shelters.

The government is grappling with how to move from a police-led response to a health-led one, and fund it appropriately. Feedback from trials in the City of Yarra, City of Greater Dandenong, City of Greater Shepparton and Castlemaine will help determine the rollout of the statewide model, but there are widespread fears about Victoria’s preparedness for November and budgetary constraints that could hamper the reforms. The two-year trials alone cost $24.5 million.

The landmark legislation was triggered by the death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in police custody.

The landmark legislation was triggered by the death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in police custody. Credit:Justin McManus

Ambulance Victoria attended more than 20,000 callouts for alcohol-only intoxication in the 2021-2022 financial year, according to the most recent available data compiled by addiction research centre Turning Point. A third of those callouts were in regional Victoria.

While the City of Melbourne topped the list of local government areas with the most callouts, at 1707 incidents, Greater Geelong, which is classified as regional, came second with 965 incidents.

Other LGAs with the highest number of callouts during the same period included Casey, in Melbourne’s southeast fringe, Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula. Shepparton, in the state’s north, recorded 273 intoxication callouts. However, when population levels are considered, the region had a higher rate of attendances per 100,000 people than Geelong.

Data from Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency shows 3181 public drunkenness offences were recorded across the state in the year ending June 2022.

A Victorian government spokesman said the government was committed to decriminalising public drunkenness because a police cell is not the place to sober up.

“We know that existing public drunkenness laws have had a disproportionate impact on certain groups in our society and we are working with representatives of those groups to provide culturally safe and appropriate services,” the spokesman said. “Addiction is a health issue and should be responded to as such.”

Nationals MP for the state seat of Shepparton, Kim O’Keefe, said the government’s proposed sobering up services were another example of Labor prioritising metropolitan communities. Almost 4 per cent of people living in and around Shepparton are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, according to the latest census data, while a quarter of residents stated that both parents were born overseas.

“Our communities do deserve the same level of support,” O’Keefe said. “Especially when it comes to a matter like this.”

Given there won’t be any dedicated services to non-Indigenous people in regional Victoria, questions remain over how it will be implemented, and what help will be provided to a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people found drunk in public. The government said non-Aboriginal services providers will not be required to provide services to non-Aboriginal people.

The government has argued its reform prioritises First Nations communities because of the disproportionate impact the laws have had on Aboriginal people. It said service providers would be given discretion about how they deliver their support.

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight has long advocated for the reform but is concerned the government has not backed it up with a significant boost in funding for health services, and is frustrated it settled on a statewide model without waiting for the results of the interim evaluation report.


While Waight insists the new model must not involve Victoria Police she expressed concern officers may resort to upcharging – where in the absence of public drunkenness people would be charged with other offences – if there were no health providers available, or they refused to move on, a risk the expert working group also identified.

The head of the police union, Wayne Gatt, said police did not oppose decriminalising public drunkenness, but that the reform was impractical. He said the force needed supplementary powers to ensure intoxicated people who were a threat to themselves or others could be moved on.

“The government has pulled the rug out from police who are ultimately going to be called but have no powers to deal with the situation,” Gatt said.

“If the government wanted to significantly and seriously limit the number of people into police custody, it should have gradually built the model and at a point in time when those services and those options were available to the entire community, then considered an opportunity to transition by modifying police powers.”

In a joint report published last year, The Police Association of Victoria, Victorian Ambulance Union and Health & Community Services Union called on the government to immediately upgrade police holding cells, install non-invasive camera-assisted medical monitoring systems similar to those used by the UK’s National Health Service, and hire more rapid-response mental health clinicians.

Gatt and Paul Healey, the branch secretary of HACSU, accused the government of ignoring a key cohort of people who are intoxicated in public: those who will refuse to be taken to sobering-up centres or connected to health services.

“The government’s response for people who are sad and vulnerable when drunk to be taken to sobering-up centres is good, and we’re supportive of that,” Healey said.

“But the government doesn’t have an answer for the third group of people who just refuse the help: they’re going to either punch an ambo, smash a window, or get picked up by police for doing other things. The whole premise of decriminalising public drunkenness is to prevent people being taken into custody – the government’s model is doing little to prevent that.”

The government said if drunk person in public was violent or aggressive towards the public or outreach workers, police could be called. If police find an intoxicated person, they may call an outreach to provide support or leave them where they are.

Wayne Gatt, the head of the powerful police union.

Wayne Gatt, the head of the powerful police union.Credit:Jason South

Gatt fears police will be “forced to wait on the side of the road for help to arrive” under the new model.

The pre-tender document states the decriminalisation model will be “consent-based” and focused on harm reduction. Sam Biondo, the executive officer at the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, commended the government for embarking on the reform, but questioned the lack of investment. He urged the state to consider the existing strains on drug and alcohol treatment services, and adequately prepare for further pressure.

“That will require more planning, more humans, more infrastructure resources – we’re talking about big changes, but are we getting the resources to build capacity? No,” Biondo said.

“There’s been a new mental health system promised, but not necessarily any investment on the alcohol and drug side. Maybe the government have adjusted the funding that goes into Aboriginal alcohol and drug space, which is really required and supported by us, but for non-Aboriginal people, there’s a need to consider the capacity to our system.”

Ambulance Victoria attended more than 20,000 callouts for alcohol-only intoxication in the 2021-2022 financial year.

Ambulance Victoria attended more than 20,000 callouts for alcohol-only intoxication in the 2021-2022 financial year.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Heather Chigwada is an alcohol and drug clinician at Project Sunrise, an organisation that works with young people and people from an African background. The expert working group on decriminalising public drunkenness identified Sudanese and South Sudanese, along with First Nations communities, as being overrepresented in the archaic laws.

She said she was worried because she was not aware of any services being put in place to help her community, and that it was important for there to be culturally safe programs.

Salvation Army boss Major Brendan Nottle said Victorians should be “highly alert” to the fact that there may not be enough wraparound services within and outside metropolitan Melbourne.


“If the government thinks just by putting certain measures in place we’ll resolve the issue, I think they’d be mistaken,” he said. “Once you dig, the more needs start to emerge.”

Victorian Ambulance Union general secretary Danny Hill said sobering up services were a good way to free up paramedics’ time. However, he said such services needed to be easily accessible. “If not, then the reforms will not be safe,” he said.

Opposition police spokesman Brad Battin said the Coalition remained opposed to any moves to water down police powers when decriminalising public drunkenness, citing NSW’s approach, which strengthened move-on laws after abolishing the offence of public intoxication.

“We need to make sure community safety is paramount, but we’re running blind because the government is saying ‘trust us’,” Battin said.

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