Justice Legislation Amendment (Police Custody Officers) Bill 2015

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Justice Legislation Amendment (Police Custody Officers) Bill 2015. The Greens will not be opposing the bill, but we do have some concerns, which I will outline

The bill establishes the legislative framework to establish civilian police custody officers, including their functions and powers. Police custody officers will be public servants rather than police, and they will have defined custody management duties. In addition the bill gives them statutory powers to carry out their duties.

We are aware of the genuine and serious concerns of Victoria Police relating to the need for sufficient police numbers obviously for patrol, for solving crime and engaging with the community, but we also aware that the issue has arisen in the context of prison overcrowding. In the Victorian Ombudsman report into deaths and harms in custody we note that as a consequence of overcrowding police cells designed for short-term stays are being used as de facto prisons, at times holding in excess of 350 detainees. There are a number of concerns. Obviously this places a burden on police. There are a number of issues around detainees and transferees being limited in access to family and legal representation and not having access to clean clothes. With the Melbourne Custody Centre often being full it means that Corrections Victoria has been unable to ensure that some prisoners attended scheduled court appearances resulting in a disruption to the criminal justice system. There are a number of concerns there and a number of issues relating to overcrowding.

The Greens are also very much cognisant of the fact that supervising and managing prisons and prisoners involves a very high level of responsibility. The seriousness of this issue cannot be understated when it has been found that 55 per cent of the prison population has an identified suicide or self-harm rating and 42 per cent are at psychiatric risk with a mental health concern. Yet these proposed police custody officers will only receive eight weeks of training at the Victorian Police Academy before commencement. Given the responsibility and associated dangers of supervising people in police custody, we are concerned that an eight-week training course is far too short and potentially inadequate.

The Greens are also concerned that this is a stopgap approach or cheaper option to the wider issue of overcrowding. Rather than addressing the root cause or the problems of prison overcrowding, such as inadequate justice policies and the absence of other policies to reduce crime, this measure is essentially, as I said, a stopgap, and it is cheaper than investing in crime prevention.

Things are only getting worse, with the changes to sentencing and parole laws resulting in more prisoners in police cells. I take this opportunity to go on record to say that this problem of prison overcrowding is an indictment of the former government's policies — the so-called tough-on-crime policies, which have seen incarceration rates and recidivism rates rise, while billions of dollars are allocated for new jails and money is potentially shifted away from preventive measures, including, of course, our education system.

This sort of approach does not wash out there with the wider community. If you had any discussion with members of the electorate in Prahran, or any other electorate, you would find that people understand the preventive approach to crime. They are not sold on this drumbeat of the so-called tough-on-crime approach, or 'Let's extend the sentence or get rid of other community sentencing options'. I think it has been demonstrated, particularly in the Ombudsman's report that came out recently, that this approach has been an absolute failure. Instead we need to invest in justice reinvestment; education; mental health; rehabilitation programs; greater use of sentencing, such as community correction orders; and making sure that prison is used as a last resort and only for serious and violent offenders. Then, if we still need more police, we should increase police numbers in the areas where they are needed, based on evidence.

The Greens have another concern regarding the bill, and that is the legal exemption clause for no liability. We oppose this clause, which outlines that a police custody officer who uses reasonable force is not liable for injury or damage caused by that use of force. Victoria Police and government departments should be just as liable as any other organisation for breaches of duty of care resulting in injury or damage. This is an important issue, because the threat of litigation is necessary to ensure that there is appropriate management and supervision of prisoners. We have seen the necessity for this in light of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and other reviews in recent years. There is a strong role for the courts, and it should not be diminished in any way. These reports have highlighted that the threat of liability of damages can be a powerful means to ensure that those supervising and managing prisoners uphold their duty of care.

The Greens will not be opposing this bill. However, we do have concerns regarding the overarching lack of policy to reduce the prison population, the critical importance of appropriate supervision and management of people in police custody and the adequacy of the training program for custodial officers. We certainly oppose the liability exemptions for Victoria Police custody officers.