I rise to make a contribution on the Spent Convictions Bill 2020. The bill will establish a scheme for eligible convictions to become protected from disclosure on a person’s criminal record after a period without reoffending. As someone who spent 15 years as an independent children’s lawyer and examined many police records in the process of looking at who was a ‘best parent’, who a child should reside with, who really had a history of offending that might preclude them from being the favoured parent, it is extraordinary just how long and how far back people’s criminal records will go in those situations. I used to reflect on some of the very minor offences that would show up over a period of time—and then of course a period of no offending. What a welcome time it is to be here in Victoria—the last state, as it turns out, to deal with this, but nevertheless to deal with something that is so important in our community.
Under the bill, eligible convictions will automatically be hidden from a person’s criminal record if they do not reoffend for 10 years. For juvenile convictions the waiting period is five years under this bill. Minor offences do not restart the waiting period. Eligible convictions are where a sentence of less than 30 months was imposed, and they do not include really serious offences—sexual offences or serious violent crimes. Some convictions can be spent straightaway, such as convictions that young children might incur where a court orders that no conviction be ordered. Those with convictions that are not eligible to be spent automatically can apply to the court for a spent convictions order in the Magistrates Court.
On a conviction being spent, a person is no longer lawfully required to disclose it. That makes an incredible difference to so many people in the community. To maintain community safety, however, and the integrity of a whole range of government processes, full criminal records, including spent convictions, will still be available. They will still be there on the records of agencies such as law enforcement, courts, professional regulators, accreditation bodies and when you go for a working with children card.
In 2019 the Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee conducted an inquiry into this issue and they made 10 recommendations—and it is really pleasing to see how now, here in the Parliament, those recommendations have been taken up. They are in this bill, which is actually a pretty small bill, but I think the smallness of it does not reflect the importance of it. And it is quite complex in a lot of ways even though it is small. There are a lot of questions and answers associated with it that people will work their way through going forward. The Aboriginal community organisations, and one in particular, Woor-Dungin’s Criminal Record Discrimination Project, long advocated for this policy and highlighted the fact that their Aboriginal communities were often very unfairly discriminated against and of course very often over-represented in the criminal justice system. They conducted extensive research over many years. A person’s rehabilitation and integration back into the community should be a high priority for the whole community, and barriers to achieving that objective, such as spent convictions, are really worthy and important things to remove.
Submissions across the board on this issue supporting it came from the Law Institute of Victoria, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Victoria Legal Aid, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service—we have a branch of that in Shepparton—and the Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centre, another regional, community, government-funded service that is often in the courts dealing with young children and with Aboriginal people. Speaking with them and with other local lawyers who are often in the Shepparton Magistrates Court on a daily basis doing criminal work, they very much support this piece of legislation.
In 2016 our office had contact with a constituent who shared his concerns about Victoria not having a scheme such as this. At that time we were not aware necessarily that this was going to happen. But many years ago, he said, over 20 years ago, he had had some minor convictions that periodically just impacted on his ability to proceed with and go ahead with employment opportunities that he really would have liked to take advantage of. When he came into our office he had the Law Institute of Victoria’s submission in his hand and was really keen to advocate to us in our office that we try and do something about this, so one hopes that a person like that will really be able to take a step forward in their life when this legislation comes into effect at the end of this year.
We have in Shepparton the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club, and it is a wonderful institution that was really driven by Paul Briggs, an elder in our community who has worked so hard to deal with many aspects of Aboriginal disadvantage and in particular to create employment opportunities for young people in the Aboriginal community. It has been a really slow process, but when I talk to Paul about it, he says to me, ‘I want it to be normal that we see young Aboriginal kids behind the counter in a pharmacy, behind the counter at Safeway, just all around the place, and we don’t. We don’t see that’. The Aboriginal community everywhere, I suspect, but I know in my community from speaking with them, want their young people to be able to achieve education and to move forward.
We know that there is a high rate of juvenile crime in our region—young kids, sometimes as young as eight, 10, 12. We have the highest rate of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. I hate saying these statistics in this place because I really like to talk up Shepparton because our district is wonderful in so many ways, but we do have significant disadvantage. We have the highest Aboriginal population outside of metropolitan Melbourne, and it brings with it so many issues that do need addressing. The fact that it impacts on the Aboriginal women so much too has been a really concerning thing brought to my attention in researching this bill.
In saying all of this, we have so many successful Aboriginal families within our community—people buying their own homes, working in the communities, and there are so many good stories. We just want to see that grow and improve, and being able to drop off convictions, not having to disclose things on your journey forward, I think really helps.
We have in Shepparton a program called the neighbourhood schools project, and I have talked about this many times. Five of our most disadvantaged schools are involved in a program where a multidisciplinary team get together and they identify those children very early on in their educational journey who have suffered significant trauma, who are not fitting in in the classroom, who are really quite dysfunctional because of what is going on. This is just something that the schools and local people have set up within the schools and over time the schools have committed some of their equity funding to employing therapists to work with these children.
There are about 50 kids who have been able to take advantage of that program and there are 150 on a waiting list. I have long begged the government to support these schools with more funding so that projects like this can go ahead, because kids do not just get over their trauma. You actually do need a therapeutic intervention, you need to work with these children on an individual basis to open up doors to actually prevent them from entering the criminal justice system at a young age. It is that early childhood intervention, which I certainly feel very passionate about. I think it is really incumbent on governments not to regard schools just as places of education anymore but to provide that wraparound service. We see meals being provided, we see all sorts of other programs in our schools and that therapeutic approach to that group of children who have suffered for whatever reason, whether it be from drugs and alcohol in the home or from being refugees who have suffered terrible trauma on their journey to Australia. These kids need to be looked after, treated and given the opportunity to go forward. To not get a conviction is the best thing, but should that happen to you, then this bill is the bill