Demand for change to Victorian bail laws is growing ever louder. The current harsh regime was introduced in response to a media frenzy in 2017 when a man on bail drove into a crowd, killing six people. Today, imprisonment rates are the highest in a century.
The current Bail Act has a presumption against bail — bail is the exception, not the norm. People who pose no community risk and are unlikely to be jailed even if found guilty, are routinely refused bail because they can’t show a “compelling reason” or “exceptional circumstance.”
First Nations people and women pay the greatest price — some with their lives. Overcrowded prisons are filled with poor people yet to face court. A staggering 89% of First Nations women, including many mothers, enter prison waiting for trial.
On 30 December 2019, Ms. Nelson Walker, a 27-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, was arrested allegedly for shoplifting, denied bail, and incarcerated. She struggled with addiction and died alone in a maximum-security cell at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre on 2 January, her cries for help ignored. Her death is a tragedy. She should not have been in jail!
A building groundswell. Before the last state election, a competition to be harshest on law-and-order policies took off between the major parties. Victoria next goes to the polls on 26 November and social justice campaigners are organising to avoid another “toughness contest.”
The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) is spearheading a campaign to demand the bail laws be fixed. Yorta Yorta woman Nerita Waight from VALS says the bail laws “sacrifice Aboriginal lives for votes.”
A meticulous policy brief prepared by VALS exposes the genocidal impact of the current laws. They run directly counter to the 1991 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody, which recommend imprisonment be the last resort.
The Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne (ISJA), a grass-roots group organising to put a permanent stop to deaths in custody, supports the VALS initiative. On 2 June it launched its No Crime, No Time – Fix Victoria’s Bail Laws Now campaign. Speakers included Karen Fletcher from Flat Out, Apsara Sabaratnam from the Multicultural Greens, and Ilo Diaz from the Police Accountability Project.
The ISJA campaign features a petition calling on the Victorian government to get people who are on remand out of Victorian prisons, remove the reverse-onus provisions in the Bail Act and create a presumption in favour of bail, placing the onus on the prosecution to demonstrate why bail should not be granted.
Debbie Brennan, who spoke at the petition launch for the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, argued, “it’s absolutely time to expose Victoria’s bail laws for what they are: a very profitable pipeline to prison. Poverty sends people to prison, and sexism puts women at the front of the line.”
ISJA has worked with local government councilors — Socialists and Greens — to demand changes to the bail laws. On 13 July, the City of Moreland passed a comprehensive resolution in support of the ISJA campaign. It committed to actively promote the demands to residents. Other councils are planning to do the same.
With punitive bail laws guaranteeing more people will be jailed, the Victorian government is spending to expand prisons. Even though funding is urgently needed for community services, health, education and public housing, Victoria has announced $1.8 billion to build prisons, including $188.9 million allocated to open 106 new cells at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.
The Homes Not Prisons campaign, formed to stop expansion of the women’s prison, is also organising ahead of the state election opposing calls for more police and prison funding and supporting bail law reform. It demands the billions for prisons be reallocated to fund urgently needed public housing. The money budgeted to expand the women’s prison alone would build a thousand new homes.
One example amongst many. Victoria is not unique with its repressive bail laws. Other states and territories have also shifted to a presumption against bail.
In New South Wales where harsh measures criminalising environmental protests are in place, the government is weaponising bail laws to intimidate protesters. Blockade Australia activists have faced excessive bail conditions including banning communication with friends, imposing curfews and prohibiting some uses of encrypted messaging.
The issues in Australia exist in other countries. Cash bail systems for profit operate in the United States. More than 2 million people, predominantly of colour, use commercial bail bonds. A form of ransom, the company keeps a percentage of the bail bond, even if the person is found not guilty.
A class action lawsuit settled in Detroit, Michigan, this July puts strict limits on the use of cash bail. Black defendants led this fight. Starmaine Jackson, a Black single mother, was jailed over unpaid traffic tickets. She lost her job as a nursing assistant and her apartment after using her rent money to pay the $700 bail bond. Jubilant, she said, “Thousands of us will be spared the hardships of being locked up just because we are poor.”
The capitalist justice system is stacked against the poor. For Ms. Nelson-Walker and Ms. Jackson, let’s maintain the momentum for change.
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Read the VALS Policy Brief: Fixing Victoria’s broken bail laws