I can confirm that Mr Grimley and I will be supporting this Bill.
It has a number of different elements to it.
Particularly importantly for us, it includes the provision of some new avenues of recourse in relation to a group of previously-prohibited forms of legal action relating to child abuse.
These changes relate to legal actions under Section 27 of the Limitation of Actions Act. Previously, these actions could apply only in respect of occurrences of sexual abuse up to the date of 1 July 2015. This Bill now extends that date to 1 July 2018 in order to make this specific area of law consistent with the application of the Legal Identity of Defendants Act 2018.
We are supportive of these changes.
Similarly, we endorse the parts of the Bill that provide for the introduction of new confidentiality provisions in cases heard at VCAT under the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act.
Most comprehensively of all, the Bill makes the necessary legislative changes to establish a Drug Court Division of the County Court on a pilot basis for three years.
In Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, we believe that, increasingly, there is a very important role for drug courts to fulfil in addressing the incidence of drug abuse in Victoria.
It is sad to have to say this but drug addictions and dependencies continue to mount across our society, and accordingly continue to be insidious and monumental problems for Victoria.
Not only does the proliferation of illicit drugs ruin so many lives among those who either traffic or consume these substances – but its ripple effects impact on far too many other Victorians, as well.
Regrettably, it is a major contributing factor to almost all of the worst criminal and social problems in contemporary Victorian society.
In fact, in the case of methamphetamines (especially ice), their use has increased so significantly that this has resulted in many more violent forms of offending than had typically been seen previously.
In purely a justice-related context alone, it’s possible to trace the majority of serious crimes in Victoria in recent decades straight back to drug use by the offender. I think it was Ms Kilkenny, the Member for Carrum, in the Lower House who confirmed that, among Victoria’s current prison populations, nearly two-thirds of them are drug users.
We also know and understand the traditionally, alarmingly high rates of recidivism among this cohort and the associated costs (and not just financially) of those trends to our society at large.
Just think for a little while about that two-thirds figure, in particular. It’s an absolutely shocking reality.
Given all of that background, we clearly do need to find and pursue more meaningful and effective solutions to these issues. I might add, too, that as I often say in this place, it is also imperative that we look more closely at doing everything we can as a society, in the form of early intervention, to educate people and to prevent them participating in this insidious addictive habit.
If we work from the premise that the proposal at the heart of this Bill – for the pilot of the Drug Court within the County Court – does have the capacity to improve the trajectory of many peoples’ lives, then that aim is clearly worthy of support.
Indeed, earlier this year (just before the advent of COVID-19 in Victoria), I actually made a visit, in my capacity as an MP, to the Drug Court at Shepparton. Through it, I specifically gained a closer and better understanding of the past and current work of the court, and its potential impact in changing outcomes for many people who come before it.
A wealth of both practical evidence and literature do indicate that drug courts typically have greater potency, in many cases, in addressing the full gamut of issues associated with drug-related offending than the use, in isolation, of standard criminal justice approaches.
That’s not to imply that there aren’t a significant number of people on whom drug courts continue to have little or no positive effect. However, there is considerable data, globally, to show that they have demonstrable impacts in improving the outlook, health and wellbeing of those concerned and, in the process, reducing further offending.
Often, including within Victoria, there are substantial decreases in the subsequent rate and severity of offending among those who appear before drug courts.
Broadly speaking, the operation of drug courts in Victoria is typically focused on a particular group of individuals whose criminal behaviour in connection with substance abuse is usually well-entrenched and stretches back over a number of years. A high proportion of them have already experienced multiple terms of imprisonment.
They therefore constitute a group who would otherwise continue to place considerable pressure on front line services and resourcing within the State’s justice system – if Drug Treatment Orders did not provide the alternative option of enabling them to avoid what might have been another custodial sentence per se and also to submit to mandatory assistance and treatment.
I don’t propose in this speech to work my way through a series of the very many detailed statistics that exist in this field. Many people have already done that in other speeches on this Bill, especially in relation to the KPMG evaluation of 2014 on the functioning of Victoria’s drug courts. Very importantly, it is worth stating, though, that the drug court model is shown not only to deliver reductions in further offending but also many other improvements to the lives and relationships of those who undergo these orders.
Generally, it also does so in a way that is more cost effective than would be the case if this group of offenders was instead incarcerated again.
All of that is not to say, though, that I don’t continue to have a few lingering questions about this particular legislation – and, specifically, about what all of its impacts and costs will prove to be in practice.
Unfortunately, I have all too regularly become aware of cases where prescribed courses of action, and rehabilitation and/or other forms of treatment (including those imposed by courts), are simply not appropriately followed.
Regrettably, there are just too many situations and too many examples where conditions are not only breached but also imperfectly administered and enforced.
I’ve spoken before, in this House, about specific cases where offenders in Northern Victoria even abscond when they have been scheduled to attend specific appointments or facilities or to follow other particular courses of action. Alarmingly, that keeps happening, over and over again.
It’s also regularly raised with me that many treatment orders do not last for long enough to make a real difference, ultimately.
I’m sorry to have to say this – but all of this paints a picture that some people in positions of power in this field (including magistrates) do not always seem to fully comprehend the complexities and idiosyncrasies of drug treatment on the ground. Nor, apparently, do they maintain full awareness of what happens in every case after their judgments and orders are imposed.
As a further point: if we are going to have more drug courts, then I daresay they also need to be accompanied by more drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, too. That’s especially true in my electorate, where so many of our cities and towns are unfortunately significantly affected by the proliferation of illicit drugs.
Separately, I have also talked in Parliament a number of times about the importance of enhancing controls over the levels of contraband entering Victorian prisons, and thereby reducing the prospects that those who are incarcerated maintain drug addictions and dependencies even whilst they are inside the State’s correctional facilities. There are still too many people in this category.
As legislatures and as courts, we can have all the best intentions in the world. However, they mean nothing if they are not followed through practically.
Indeed, drug courts will – by definition – work best when they are one part of a suite of approaches. By that, I mean that they will inevitably work best not just where they are effective in their own right, but also as one element of a holistic, systemic approach encompassing a series of complementary measures.
I should stress that there are many incredible individuals and organisations in Victoria already undertaking work to each of these ends. However, in many cases, it would be great if they were even better resourced and supported.
Truly turning around the lives of those abusing drugs is clearly contingent on many different forms of action. Among these are painstaking and dedicated individual case management, the use of appropriate deterrents and sanctions for repeat offenders, careful balancing of punishments against crimes, the presence within the court system of more magistrates and judges with genuine, specialist expertise and understandings of drug matters – and also meaningful communication and consultation between each of the parties involved. As well as the detailed, ongoing contemplation and evaluation of practical data about the success or otherwise of each of these actions.
On the latter point, it would be interesting to hear the Government’s rationale for running an evaluation of this pilot of the new Drug Court after two years but still continuing its operation for at least another year after that. That said, I realise that, since the Bill was drafted, the entire timeline for the implementation of the pilot has probably been complicated and disrupted in any case by the continued, COVID-caused disruptions to the functioning of the Victorian court system.
In coming toward the end of this speech, I also want to indicate that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party will not be supporting Mr O’Donohue’s amendments. The differing positions of the Government and Opposition on these amendments were well ventilated in the Assembly in June. We do not have too much to add to those contributions, other than to agree with the Government that we do not perceive a clear need for the amendments.
There are already various conditions and stipulations in this
legislation – especially in Clause 12, the very same Clause that the Opposition is seeking to amend – that would seem to us to make these changes superfluous.
I refer, in that context, particularly to those elements of Clause 12 that legislate that, in dealing with any offender, the Drug Court must be satisfied on the balance of probabilities that that person is dependent on drugs or alcohol and that this dependency contributed to the commission of the offence. There’s another part of that Clause that also already specifies that the Court can not deal with any matter that would otherwise ordinarily attract a term of imprisonment of more than four years.
In conclusion, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party supports this Bill.
However, in doing so, I also urge the Government to implement more of a holistic, systemic response to drug abuse that goes well beyond the expansion of our drug courts.
These courts, as effective as they are generally proving to be, can not ever be seen as a panacea all of their own. Instead, they are just one important tool in our armoury. They are part of what needs to be a wide-ranging and complementary set of measures – as that surely gives us the best hope of a pathway to meaningful reform.