Victoria Will Decriminalise Public Drunkenness, Two Years After Tanya Day Died In Custody

"It took the death of our mother for the Government to repeal laws that should have been abolished 30 years ago."

tanya day

The Victorian government has finally committed to decriminalising public drunkenness, two years after Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day died in police custody after being arrested for sleeping on a train.

Victoria and Queensland are the only states where public drunkenness remains a crime, despite the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommending nearly 30 years ago that the crime be abolished. The Royal Commission found that while people are drunk in public often, the charge of public drunkenness has been disproportionately used against Indigenous people.

Tanya Day was arrested for public drunkenness after being found asleep on a train in 2017. She was taken to the cells of Castlemaine police station, where she fell and hit her head. She died in hospital from a brain haemorrhage 17 days later. Her family have been advocating tirelessly for the law to be changed, and are currently preparing for a three-week inquest into Day’s death, due to begin this week.

Announcing the change to the law yesterday, Victorian Attorney General Jill Hennessy wrote on Twitter that “nearly 30 years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that Victoria abolish the offence of public drunkenness. Despite this, it is still a crime to be drunk in public in Victoria.”

“We have listened to community, and with the help of sustained advocacy from the family of Tanya Day, we know this law needs to change. Our government will repeal the offence of public drunkenness and establish a health response instead – putting an end to people being routinely locked up just for being drunk. People who are so drunk they might put themselves in harm’s way should not be in a jail cell.”

“The crime of being drunk in public is often committed and rarely enforced. When it is enforced, it’s not against people who are coming home from the races or footy. It’s the vulnerable and marginalised; the people without a home to go to.”

“The impact of the public drunkenness laws has been felt most acutely by our First Peoples. We will work together with the community to make sure our health-led model works and is culturally safe. We can’t change what happened to Tanya but we can change the future.”

Tanya Day’s family have welcomed the proposed change to the law, but have also pointed out that the government has a long way to go to prevent deaths in custody.

“This is welcome news, but it’s tinged with grief and sadness,” the family said in a statement. “In the end it took the death of our mother for the government to repeal laws that should have been abolished 30 years ago when the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody were released.”

“The government’s commitment is a great first step, but they need to back their words with action and repeal the law quickly so that no other Aboriginal person dies in custody.”

“There’s still a long journey ahead in seeking justice for our mum. We’re still waiting on the truth of what happened to be revealed through the coronial process and from that, accountability. At the time mum died, Aboriginal women were around 11 times more likely to be arrested. This raises serious questions about racism in Victoria Police.”

At the inquest into Tanya Day’s death, which begins on Monday, the family are seeking answers to questions about the role racism may have played in Day’s death, whether the death was investigated impartially, and whether Victoria Police treated Day differently because she was an Indigenous woman.

Advocates for Victoria’s Indigenous community have pointed out that while changes to public drunkenness laws are welcome, the timing of the announcement, immediately before this inquest, is questionable.

The announcement also comes as the Victorian government pushes ahead with plans for a highway expansion that would destroy 800-year-old trees sacred to the Djab Wurrung people. The government has so far ignored the Djab Wurrung traditional owners’ requests for the trees to be protected.

The family of Tanya Day have started a fundraiser to support their travel and living expenses during the upcoming inquest. You can find the fundraising page here.

Feature image via Human Rights Law Centre.