The Guardian • Issue #1973

Reform draconian Victorian bail laws!

A new report by Corrections Victoria has revealed that over half of women incarcerated in Victorian prisons are unsentenced, highlighting once more the deep flaws in Victoria’s bail system. According to the report, in July 2021 there were 411 women incarcerated in Victoria, with 221 of them, or fifty-four per cent, unsentenced.

Following the Bourke St attack in 2017, the Victorian parliament introduced reforms to bail laws by creating a set of offences for which there is a presumption against bail. This shifts the burden of proof onto the accused, who now has to prove why they should be granted bail. This departs from the old system where a prosecutor had to argue why a person should not be granted bail. The offences which these laws apply to are mostly violent offences including domestic violence, sex offences, and terrorism. But they also apply to non-violent drug offences and some driving offences.

The bail laws are intended to keep dangerous and violent people out of the community while they are awaiting trial and/or sentencing. The reality is that the bail system disproportionately targets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Feminist and Indigenous rights advocates have been campaigning hard for the Andrews government to enact a wholesale reform of the most onerous and dangerous bail laws in the country. But tough on crime policies win elections, and change hasn’t been forthcoming.

Women, and Indigenous women in particular, are disproportionately affected by these laws because of the kinds of structural disadvantages that make it difficult for them to make a case for bail. A lot of the time, when women are denied bail it isn’t because they pose a risk to the community. It is because they may not have a place to go if released on bail due to homelessness, mental illness, domestic violence or socio-economic hardship.

Put simply, rather than direct them to appropriate crisis resources in the community, the system’s response is to keep these women in custody for low level offences without bail. When their cases come before a judge, they are often released on time served sentences or acquitted of all charges. This only goes to show that there was no good reason for them to be in custody in the first place.

Like most corrections policies, the bail system in Victoria doesn’t even make financial sense. It costs around $300 per prisoner per day to keep people incarcerated. This cost would be greatly offset by allowing non-dangerous people accused of offences to remain in the community until a court decides their sentence. Not to mention that incarceration greatly increases the chances of re-offending, which only compounds the potential cost of incarceration.

As it stands, over 13,000 prisoners in Victoria are unsentenced. If the government is intent on spending this money, $300 per head for 13,000 people would go a long way to funding desperately needed community services like drug and alcohol rehabilitation, homelessness services, mental health support, and support for people experiencing family violence.

The current system has been described as draconian. A more apt description is hard to come by. The system is racist, misogynistic, and classist. It punishes some of the most disadvantaged in our community when they most need help. Not only that, it flies in the face of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle that our criminal law is based on. Reform Victoria’s bail laws now!

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