'Our Mum Would Still Be Here': Calls To Abolish Law Around Being Drunk In Public

Tanya Day's children believe their mother would still be here if it wasn't for one outdated law.

Day, an Aboriginal woman, died in December 2017 after suffering a fall in police custody. She had been on a train to Melbourne when she fell asleep and was later arrested for being drunk in a public place.

Day never made it home. Now, her children want to see the offence that put their mother in custody abolished -- and they're not alone.

More than 80 Aboriginal, health, human rights and legal organisations have signed an open letter written by Day's family demanding the Victorian government decriminalises public drunkenness.

The letter was published on Monday, 28 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended all states and territories abolish the offence and put in place appropriate community-health alternatives to incarceration.

Victoria and Queensland are the only states that still have a specific offence, with section 13 of Victoria's Summary Offences Act stating that "any person found drunk in a public place shall be guilty of an effort".

This can be enforced by way of arrest and/or charge, or it can be the subject of an infringement notice or fine.

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Shahleena Musk, Senior Lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre (HLRC), described the offence as a "relic of age-old punitive laws". 

"We're not talking about people committing serious offences where they are being disorderly, or where they are causing harm or fear to the public," she told 10 daily.

"This is an offence which is simply being drunk in a public place -- whether you're in a street, a park or on a train."

Abolishing the offence has been the recommendation of several inquiries in Victoria dating back to the Royal Commission in 1991, which found it disproportionately affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The HRLC, a signatory on the letter, is calling on the Victorian government to abolish the offence and implement a public-health response in its place.

"The government needs to be sitting down with health organisations and Aboriginal community representatives to look at appropriate responses to people who are in public spaces intoxicated," Musk said. 

There has been recommendations from a Commission back in the 1990s, there has been numerous government commissioned inquiries and report. Why has the Victorian government not repealed the offence?

While recent statistics on the extent of its use in relation to Indigenous people are not publicly available, Musk warns the offence is prone to selective policing and enforcement.

"Many people would have committed this offence on the weekend or leaving the Melbourne Cup. It's a commonplace behaviour which is being criminalised but disproportionately it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are finding their way into police custody and police cells," she said. 

"... We know that is a real danger to their health, and potentially -- as is the case with Tanya Day -- their lives."

Day, a then 55-year-old mother and proud Yorta Yorta woman, was travelling by train from Echuca to Melbourne in December 2017.

She was asleep when a conductor on the V/Line train called police to say he had a "drunk passenger without a ticket from the train".

Day was arrested and charged with public drunkenness at Castlemain train station, and was in policy custody four hours later.

By the end of the day, she was unconscious in hospital.

Day died 17 days later.

"Our mum was not treated with respect, she was not afforded dignity and there was no compassion in how she was treated -- the simple fact is, this is because she was an Aboriginal woman," her children wrote in the letter released on Monday.

"It's time to put an end to racially discriminatory laws and policies that result in people, like our mum, dying in police custody."

The circumstances surrounding Day's death is being investigated by the Coroner.

In a statement, a government spokesperson told 10 daily it would be inappropriate to comment on an individual matter currently under investigation.

Featured image: AAP

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