I rise to make a contribution on the Justice Legislation Amendment (Unlawful Association and Criminal Appeals) Bill 2018.
It is a bill that purports to reform the criminal justice system, with changes to police powers to respond to serious and organised crime and to Victoria’s appeals system.
Firstly, in dealing with this unlawful association bill, I have to say that I feel very concerned about the nature of this piece of legislation.
I note that in his second-reading speech the Attorney-General said that this was a bill that contains a range of important reforms to the criminal justice system. He concentrated really on the Criminal Organisations Control Act 2012 and said that this legislation will enhance the provisions of that act.
It has been sold to us as a bill that is being enacted to deal with organised crime, but the unintended consequences around this piece of legislation are what are so very concerning. There are a number of points I would like to make. I know that when laws of this nature were introduced into New South Wales the New South Wales Ombudsman did a report on them and talked about the unintended consequences there. The fact that children were targeted in such a way really caused concern about the legislation. Some 9000 notices were issued and 46 people were sentenced for consorting during the period that the Ombudsman looked at. Reporting on the laws, he found that 7 per cent of consorting warnings were directed at children — 13 to 17-year-olds — while Aboriginal communities were subjected to 40 per cent of all consorting provisions. More than half the consorting warnings given to women were given to Aboriginal women.
My electorate has the highest Aboriginal population outside of metropolitan Melbourne, and I fear for a community where we create laws that place these sorts of provisions in the hands of police at the level of sergeant. It is simply extraordinary that these sorts of notices, which have the consequences that they do, could be put into the hands of local police across the state with very little examination as to the impacts of those laws. Two-thirds of the 83 children in New South Wales aged between 13 and 17 years who received consorting warnings were Aboriginal, despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising only 2.5 per cent of the population. These are very concerning statistics, and they put a lie to the fact that this is about organised crime. Certainly I think we all want to see organised crime smashed. We want it dealt with. We do not want organised crime recruiting young people. But the reality is that these sorts of notices are not actually targeting that group of people, so the capacity for unintended consequences that I have referred to is really very great.
In information I have had from a local legal aid service, another example has been pointed out to me of where these notices are given. I am just going to read the two paragraphs:
Police and ambulance services were called to attend a location to search for two bushwalkers. The bushwalkers had contacted emergency services after becoming lost. Once the men had been found, police conducted checks and discovered that both men had convictions for indictable offences. One man had been convicted of drug supply (not cannabis) almost 10 years earlier. There is nothing in the police records to indicate continued involvement in the supply of illicit drugs and the only police contact since that conviction involved traffic matters. The other man had been convicted of common assault five years earlier and is described in police records as a ‘self-confessed cannabis user’. His police record also indicates concerns for his mental health. Neither man has ever been identified by police as a higher risk offender.
In speaking with the men individually, police were told that neither of them knew the other had been convicted of an offence. Police were also told that they were bushwalking and one man was showing the other man Aboriginal rocks and boulders in the area. The men were each issued with a consorting warning. Police recorded a suspicion the pair may be involved in cultivating cannabis although officers did not locate anything …
In any event it was seen as okay to give them a notice. This is not organised crime and it is not dealing with what a lot of the rhetoric around this legislation seems to be about, but it is targeting people who are perhaps more vulnerable in our community.
In today’s Australian, Chip Le Grand has published an article talking about the recent bail laws which came into operation in this state on 1 July 2018. The number of unsentenced prisoners now remanded in custody on criminal charges has leapt 60 per cent since the Bourke Street rampage that prompted the overhaul of those laws. We now see situations such as a 37-year-old mother of five spending 68 days behind bars on remand for stealing a handbag from Myer, only to be released on a good behaviour bond. A homeless man was jailed for stealing a packet of sushi. A 12-year-old boy was forced to spend a night in a police cell. Is this what we really want to see happen in our state? I do not think so.
If someone is charged with shoplifting, is bailed and is then caught with a small amount of drugs and has to go to jail, I do not think that is really what we want to see happening. Again, the rhetoric is so much around organised crime, around gangs — no doubt targeting African gangs, which seem to be so much in the news at the moment — but this is not the way we are going to solve the problems that we have with our disadvantaged communities, with people who are disenfranchised, with people with mental health problems or with children.
In in my electorate of Shepparton we are trying to deal with these problems on a community basis. We have a Sudanese community, we have a Congolese community, we have a significant African community and we have one of the most multicultural societies in Victoria. I have said before that we also have the highest Aboriginal population outside of Melbourne. These sorts of problems and the crime problem in our community are not typified by African gangs and are not typified by gangs going on rampages, so why is that? What is it that we are doing as a community that might be creating a different environment or creating opportunities for people?
I would like to just mention the Greater Shepparton Lighthouse Project, a community-based organisation that received $3 million in a recent budget to continue with their work. They are working with young people in our community. They have established the Haven, which is just a place for kids to go after school and have a meal. Some 150 kids are registered from the Shepparton-Mooroopna area. They go there on weeknights and have a meal. Some do their homework. They hang out. They just wanted a place to go. They told the people who organised this Lighthouse project that they just did not have anywhere to go and that they wanted somewhere to go. Now they have somewhere to go.
The Bridge Youth Service in Shepparton works with young people aged between about 12 and 17, and there are so many other organisations in our community that work with young people to try and divert them from the sorts of issues that do arise in their families. We have some of the highest rates of young people in out-of-home care, but I have to say that as a community we are trying to do something about it. We are working on looking at these sorts of issues.
I just reflect on the fact that in Texas, a strong Republican state that you would expect to have a really strong law and order base, they have moved away from that notion of imprisoning everybody. They have moved to deliberately investing in early childhood and in mental health services in ways that are actually in the long run much cheaper than investing in the prison system, and they are starting to see results. We need to be looking at other ways and other opportunities to deal with the problems we have. We might think we have been doing it well, but we actually have not.
I had the opportunity to visit the Parkville youth detention centre about 18 months ago. Half the young people in that place are on remand, and there are only about 200 young people across the state. I ask the government to reconsider its position on this legislation.