I am pleased to rise to speak to the Justice Legislation Amendment (Drug Court and Other Matters) Bill 2020. There are certainly some significant matters in this bill, many of which could be spoken about at some length. First of all there is the protecting of privacy of vulnerable Victorians by introducing confidentiality provisions applying to cases heard before VCAT under the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017, and I think all of us who were here in the last Parliament well remember the very long journey we went on to achieve an outcome in relation to that really momentous legislation here in the state of Victoria.
It is a small amendment but necessary in relation to protecting the privacy of those people. It improves access to justice by victim survivors of institutional abuse, who signed up to settlements that would now perhaps be seen as almost unconscionable, given what we now know from the royal commission and the Betrayal of Trust report here in this Parliament as well. The bill also allows the Attorney-General to delegate some powers under the Charities Act 1978 and give permanent effect to reform relating to the positions of chairpersons and alternate chairpersons of the Youth Parole Board.
But of particular interest to my electorate is the aspect of the bill that deals with the drug courts. This bill primarily is about extending the drug courts into the County Court, and I think that is something to be welcomed. It is done on the back of what has been seen as a successful rollout of drug courts in the Magistrates Court, first of all in New South Wales going back to about 1999. I understand Dandenong was about 2002. We are lucky enough in Shepparton to be going to have a rollout of a drug court there as well as in Ballarat. Sometimes these sorts of reforms take a fair while. The evaluation has been done, and it seems to be showing that this is an investment in justice that is worth making.
I was very moved by hearing the member for Morwell speak of personal experience, and I think it always lends something to any debate to hear from someone who really knows about these things. It is an agony for a parent to have to deal with such a situation. Whenever we think of these people going before the Drug Court we need to remember that they are individuals, they do have families, they often have wives and children of their own—many other people who are so detrimentally affected. Probably just over a year ago I spoke with a group of barristers who were having lunch up in Shepparton on the Family Court circuit. The comment was, ‘Oh, so many of these cases are here because of ice’. That is the predominant reason why these families are in dispute while there are fights over where children should go.
When I was an independent children’s lawyer so often the underlying cause of so much of that sort of family law confrontation arose out of drug taking. In regional areas we all know that ice is just so prevalent and so easily available. I recall sitting in court on one occasion when a judge looked at me and said, ‘Ms Sheed, would you take these children home?’, because both parents were drug takers. Judges are sometimes faced with these really invidious decisions they have to make between two children. That was in a time when there was not a choice of the department unless other proceedings were taken at another time.
It has certainly brought home to me over the years the need for drug rehabilitation. Really just in the last few years we have fought hard to get one of the residential drug rehabilitation centres located in the Shepparton region. Ultimately it went to Wangaratta and another one went to Gippsland, and I am sure they are equally needed there, but I was very disappointed that one of the reasons we did not perhaps achieve the outcome we wanted as a community was that there was such a strong sense of ‘not near me’. No-one wanted that drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre to be near them. We searched endlessly to try and find a suitable location to put such a centre and build our case to the government, but in the end it just seemed that the opposition to having it near people and residents and other people who thought that those people would be so dangerous to them, even though they were in rehabilitation, was too great.
I personally take the view that if someone is in rehabilitation, they are probably a lot less dangerous than the ones walking down the street past your house. It was very disappointing to me that we found ourselves in that situation, but I do not think we will be giving up, because the need in our region is indeed still great. In the last two or three years we have had an organisation called The Cottage, which is set up in Shepparton. It has similarly faced this enormous upheaval in terms of neighbours not wanting it in their region. It was ultimately successful before VCAT, and it is now established.
Sitting suspended 1.00 pm until 2.02 pm.
Business interrupted under sessional orders.
Before I finished earlier I was talking about the fact that there was a time when we were hoping to be able to persuade the government to build an alcohol and drug residential facility in my region but there had been a lot of opposition to the locations that had been proposed and we lost that opportunity. I then moved on to the fact that we have had The Cottage establish itself, a place for people to integrate themselves back into the community effectively. They will have been detoxed, they will have had some rehabilitation and they will then be looking to continue accessing a whole range of drug and alcohol services but also be preparing themselves to move back into the community.
I also had the opportunity several years ago to visit the Odyssey House facility at Molyullah up in the hills beyond Benalla and meet a number of people there who were in that live-in environment on a farm. To see what is achieved in a place like that is very humbling, really, because they are facilities that provide an opportunity for people to get their lives back together again. Sometimes they leave that place, they fall back into drug taking and they come back again, but that facility is there for them.
The announcement of the Drug Court program extending to Shepparton is very welcomed. I have spoken to local lawyers about it who are very pleased to think that our region will have that facility, because the need is great. The Shepparton district rates very low on all socio-economic factors. The Shepparton electorate is in the lowest 20 per cent of electorates across all four indexes, having one of the highest levels of disadvantage compared to the state average of other electorates. So there has long been a need within our community. The expansion will assist in meeting the needs of a particular group of entrenched offenders, and it should reduce demand on our corrective and social services and provide greater access to services.
It was very interesting to read the KPMG evaluation report of 2014. It demonstrates that there is a continuing and demonstrable need for a court-based response to particularly serious systemic offenders with significant drug and alcohol issues. The evaluation shows that 40 per cent of people complete the program. There was a 31 per cent drop after 12 months, a 34 per cent drop in recidivism two years post the drug treatment order, a 90 per cent cut in trafficking offences, a 54 per cent cut in violence with weapons and improved mental and physical health and community connectedness. I think figures were put on reduced recidivism, with an annual cost per participant of around $26 000 compared with what can be well over $110 000 for a person in prison each year. Magistrate Tony Parsons, who headed the Drug Court program in Dandenong and Melbourne, said that the alternative was simply people getting locked up, and we know that that does not work in terms of long-term recovery.
This therapeutic jurisprudence of drug courts has shown that it is effective and that it deals with the revolving door of recidivism which is occurring in what have been conventional means to date. This bill that is now enabling the County Court to adopt what has been happening in a couple of Magistrates Courts and the expansion into the Magistrates Court in regional areas is most welcomed, and I support the bill.