November 3, 2023

Decriminalisation of public drunkenness in Victoria

Victorian parliament Melbourne

NOTE: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names and descriptions of people who have died.

From November 7, 2023, public intoxication (public drunkenness) will no longer be a criminal offense in Victoria, following the Government’s 2019 announcement that the law would be removed.1-3

Public intoxication is when someone is drunk in a public place. Decriminalising this means people will no longer face the possibility of being arrested for being drunk in public.

Victoria is the second last Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise public intoxication.

Queensland is currently completing an inquiry into introducing it and the other states and territories decriminalised the offense between 1974 and 1990.

The decision in Victoria came after the tragic death of Aboriginal woman, Tanya Day, in police custody after being arrested while intoxicated.4

Tanya was asleep on a train from Melbourne to regional Victoria when she was arrested in December 2017. 

While in police custody, she fell and hit her head, resulting in a brain injury. Less than three weeks later, she died at St. Vincent’s hospital in Melbourne.

The law change in Victoria is welcome news for groups that have been the most impacted by public intoxication laws, including:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • people experiencing homelessness
  • multicultural communities.5

How do Victoria’s public intoxication laws work?

Up until the new laws come into effect on November 7, 2023, the laws in Victoria mean police can arrest people they suspect are drunk in a public place, with a penalty of roughly $1160.6

If someone is also charged with being disorderly, they can be banned from a licenced venue, receive a fine of up to $900, or be sentenced to a month in prison with a criminal record.

Many people charged with public intoxication are taken into police custody to sober up, rather than their home or another place of safety. 

There have been a significant number of deaths in police cells in many western countries where people are detained for public intoxication.7

Impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

First Nation’s communities have been advocating for the decriminalisation of public drunkeness for decades.3

Since 1979/80, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have accounted for 19% of all deaths in custody and 22% of deaths in police custody – despite only making up 3.2% of the population.8,9

The 1991 Royal Commission into Indigenous Deaths in Custody found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for public intoxication compared to the rest of the population, and that laws should be immediately removed due to the disproportionate and harmful impact they have. This still remains true today.10

In 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were over nine times more likely to serve a sentence for a public order offense such as public intoxication in Victoria – despite making up only 0.8% of the Victorian population.11,12

Alcohol use is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue

A health-based response to public intoxication can help reduce harm.

This type of approach focuses on finding the person a ‘place of safety’ where they can sober up and receive care or support. 

For example, assisting an intoxicated person to return to their home, or to a friend or family member’s place while they sober up. This can also help minimise the impact on health services.5

But this option may not always be available. 

Some people might be too intoxicated to be taken home, or they may be experiencing homelessness and have other complex needs. In these situations, it’s important to have accessible health services where people can sober up and receive appropriate care.

Sobering-up centres can meet this need.5

What is a sobering-up centre?

Sobering-up centres are safe places where people who are intoxicated can go to recover. 

These centres can provide beds, food, water, a shower, clean clothes and even a laundry service. The average stay is around 24 hours but can be longer if needed. 

It’s a much safer alternative to being in a police cell if someone is unwell or injured as there are health professionals on hand who can provide care.13

The health workers at a sobering-up centre usually include:

  • alcohol and other drug workers
  • case workers
  • Aboriginal health workers
  • nurses
  • counsellors.

The workers can assess and monitor a person’s level of intoxication while they are at the centre, and get medical help if needed.13

They also offer brief counselling for the person’s alcohol use or other needs, once they are feeling better. This might include harm-reduction information to avoid risky situations next time they drink, or providing referrals to ongoing treatment and support.7,13

Some of the current sobering-up centres in Australia include:

Victoria is set to open its first sobering-up centre following the law change coming into effect, with Cohealth in Collingwood being chosen as the provider:

What can Victoria learn from the rest of Australia?

Public intoxication has been decriminalised for decades in other states and territories.

But, in many cases, police still charge people who are drunk in public with another related offence instead, such as having an open container of alcohol, disorderly conduct or using offensive language.5

In South Australia, police can apprehend an intoxicated person if they can’t look after themselves and either take them home, to an approved place, sobering-up centre, or police station. Due to the lack of sobering-up centres, police usually take someone to sober up in a police cell.7

Between 2014-19, there were 11,655 people taken into police cells for public intoxication in states/territories where it was decriminalised. The true number, however, is likely to be higher as WA has no available data.5

Poor implementation of decriminalisation of public drunkenness has meant many deaths in custody are still happening where the person has been detained for a minor offense.

From 1989-2021, there have been 129 deaths in police custody where the person was arrested for things like public drunkenness, protective custody for intoxication, disorderly conduct, or offensive behaviour.8

For decriminalisation to be effective, we need to ensure:

  • first responders are health or community service organisations, supported by dedicated outreach services. For example: Outreach Services - Larrakia Nation
  • there are enough sobering up centres, with a wide range of transport options available to take people to these centres
  • services are culturally safe and able to offer the person short-term care and options for long-term support if the person needs and wants it
  • police powers are restricted so that an intoxicated person can only be arrested by police if they’re a serious threat to harming themselves or others.5,7

The decriminalisation of public intoxication needs to be supported with a strong investment in health and welfare services so that the changes are effective.

More information

  1. Wahlquist C. Victoria abolishes public drunkenness as a crime ahead of death in custody inquest: The Guardian; 2019 [10.10.2023].
  2. Grieve C. 'Long overdue': public drunkenness to be decriminalised in Victoria: The Age; 2019 [10.10.2023].
  3. Department of Health. Public intoxication reform: Victoria Government; 2023 [10.10.2023].
  4. Wahlquist C. Tanya Day died in custody because of inadequate police checks, inquest hears: The Guardian; 2019 [10.10.2023].
  5. Expert Reference Group. Seeing the Clear Light of Day: Expert Reference Group on Decriminalising Public Drunkenness: Victorian Government; 2020 [25.10.2023].
  6. Victoria Legal Aid. Public drunkenness 2022 [17.10.2023].
  7. Pennay A, Savic M, Seear K, Volpe I, Manning V, Room R. Decriminalising public drunkenness: Accountability and monitoring needed in the ongoing and evolving management of public intoxication. Drug and Alcohol Review [Internet]. 2021 [25.10.2023]; 40(2):[205-9 pp.].
  8. Australian Institute of Criminology. Deaths in custody in Australia 2020–21 Canberra: Australian Government; 2021 [25.10.2023].
  9. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: Census 2021 [12.08.2022].
  10. Gannoni A, Bricknell S. Indigenous Deaths in Custody: 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: Australian Institute of Criminology; 2019 [25.10.2023].
  11. Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. 2019 report on the operation of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities [23.10.2023].
  12. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016 Census QuickStats Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2017 [2.11.2023].
  13. Lee N, Bartle J,. What happens in a 'sobering up' centre?2023 [24.10.2023].

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