Since the mid-1800s, offences relating to public drunkenness have existed in Victoria and other Australian jurisdictions. These offences criminalise various forms of drunkenness, with some of the Victorian offences not even requiring the drunkenness to have been accompanied by disorderly behaviour. The utility of these offences is now being questioned, with a proposal to abolish them in favour of a health-based approach to alcohol abuse. This article deals with public drunkenness offences in Victoria.
Current public drunkenness offences
Currently, under the Summary Offences Act 1966, there are several criminal offences that relate to an individual being found to be intoxicated in a public place. These are summarised in the table below.
|Section 13||Person found drunk in a public place||Fine of 8 penalty units|
|Section 14||Person found drunk and disorderly in a public place||Fine of 20 penalty units for a first offence
Imprisonment for one month for a second offence
|Section 16||Person found drunk and behaving in a riotous and/or disorderly manner in a public place||Fine of 10 penalty units
or imprisonment for two months
As a result of these provisions, many people have found themselves before the court for public drunkenness and have had sentences imposed and convictions recorded. A criminal conviction can create a wide range of issues for individuals in relation to travel, employment and/or visa applications.
The shift in thinking
Over several years there has been a substantial shift in the view of the community in relation to public drunkenness being classed as a criminal offence.
Following several state and federal inquiries, such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Victorian Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee inquiry into Public Drunkenness and the inquiry into Strategies to Reduce Harmful Alcohol Consumption, recommendations were made as to how the laws around public drunkenness should be changed to reflect present-day community values. There is now a strong trend towards a more therapeutic and rehabilitative approach towards alcohol abuse and many people feel that the current framework, relying on the criminal law to deal with drunkenness, is not effective.
This change in thinking is the culmination of years of research into not only the effectiveness of dealing with public drunkenness through the criminal justice system but the underlying issues behind why these offences are committed.
States and territories (in particular Victoria) are now looking at moving away from treating alcohol dependency as a criminal issue, and to dealing with this as a health issue instead. The main reasoning behind this is to allow more people to be able to comfortably access professional assistance, in order to treat their alcohol dependency. There is an abundance of research that concludes that where alcohol dependency is treated as a criminal issue, a stigma attaches to the issue, and this is likely to deter people from seeking the help that they need. Moving to a health-based approach would remove this stigma and would allow individuals to feel more comfortable in seeking out professional help.
Under the old framework, individuals who were intercepted for public drunkenness were usually first confronted by a police officer, with the next step being that the individual would be placed in a holding cell to ‘sober up’. Following this, individuals may be charged ‘on summons’ to face court on a later date. They would receive a sentence that was largely punitive and not be given any support mechanisms to address the underlying reason for their alcohol dependency.
The health-based approach
What is proposed under the new ‘health based’ approach, is the following.
Firstly, the first responder should ideally be a health professional who is specifically trained to deal with persons who are intoxicated.
Secondly, the person is then assisted to get their own residence where they can be cared for by another individual (or an emergency department in situations where this is not feasible), to essentially sober up in familiar surroundings, rather than a holding cell.
Thirdly, mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the person is then provided assistance and follow-ups in relation to engagement with long-term allied health services to assist with the underlying issues behind their alcohol dependency.
Proposal to decriminalise public drunkenness
On 8 December 2020, the Summary Offences Amendment (Decriminalisation of Public Drunkenness) Bill 2020 was introduced into parliament. The Bill seeks to decriminalise the offence of public drunkenness and repeal Sections 13, 14 and 16 of the Summary Offences Act 1966.
This is intended to bring Victoria in line with the majority of other states and territories in Australia that have decriminalised public drunkenness (NT in 1974, NSW in 1979, ACT in 1983, WA in 1990, TAS in 2004 and SA in 2016). Currently, Victoria and Queensland remain the only two states that have legislation that makes it a criminal offence to be drunk in a public place, in situations where there is no disorderly behaviour alleged.
On 9 December 2020, the second reading speech of the Bill was conducted before members of parliament. If passed by parliament, the changes (decriminalising public drunkenness) will come into effect on 7 November 2022.
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