The Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said on January 30 that a requirement for police and the courts to explicitly consider a person’s Indigenous status when making decisions on bail and sentencing “would help address the systemic failures” highlighted by Coroner Simon McGregor’s investigation into the death of Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Nelson.
Veronica died in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC), a women’s prison, on January 2, 2020. She weighed 33 kilograms and had undiagnosed Wilkie Syndrome, which causes constriction of the arteries. She also suffered from heroin withdrawal.
Veronica was imprisoned on December 31, 2019, after being arrested for alleged shoplifting, as well as bail offences. Her application for bail was rejected, after a police officer mistakenly ticked a box on a form saying that she was a danger to others, even though she had no history of violence.
Veronica was placed in a locked cell overnight at DPFC, from which she repeatedly screamed and pressed a buzzer to seek help, but her pleas were ignored.
The ALA has added its voice to calls establish therapeutic short-term housing options for people who are denied bail for alleged low-level offending, or who do not have a suitable bail address.
ALA spokesperson Greg Barns said Victoria’s bail laws must be “completely overhauled” to address “the scale of injustice that we are seeing”. “We must find a way to ensure the police and the courts make specific reference to someone’s Indigenous status when making decisions about bail and sentencing,” Barnes said.
Donna Nelson, Veronica’s mother, released the following statement after the coroner’s findings on January 30.
“To the law makers, I want you to sit and listen to Veronica’s final hours. I want her voice to ring in your ears until you realise that our justice system is broken.
“Veronica should never have been locked up. You were supposed to change bail laws to stop a white male monster from killing people, but instead you filled our prisons with non-violent Aboriginal women like my daughter Veronica. Our bail laws need to change now…
“This inquest showed that Veronica was failed at every level of the justice system — from the moment she came into contact with police on 30 December 2019. When she travelled on the tram that Monday afternoon, the police saw an Aboriginal woman and beelined for her. It was this profiling that led to her horrific death where her final words at 4am were calling out for someone to help her. She called out for her deceased father.
“That’s how much pain she was in. The response from the prison guard was to tell her to stop screaming as she was disturbing the other prisoners.
“As her mother, this will haunt me until the day I die. I hope it haunts all of you who didn’t help my daughter when she needed you the most.”
Barnes said Victorian law “permits culture to be considered when the court is making decisions about bail”, but more must be done to “ensure this is explicitly and directly considered both in determining whether bail is granted, but also in sentencing”.
He said new laws may be needed, but that “it will also require education and commitment from the police and the courts”.
ALA also recommended the establishment of a short-term therapeutic housing system for individuals who do not have stable accommodation, a suitable bail address or who are facing the courts for less serious offending.
“Too often bail is denied to a person in Victoria because they do not have somewhere to live or who provide a bail address that is not suitable,” Barnes said.
Barnes said in many cases individuals with a prior history of breach of bail are facing the court for less serious offences. “They need accommodation support and therapeutic services while they wait for their case to be heard rather than being warehoused in a dangerous prison environment.”
The ALA warned in 2017 that the proposed changes to bail laws would be harmful and “unfortunately that has proven to be the case”.
“Indigenous Australians are overrepresented on remand and we know that they experience unique disadvantages in their contact with the criminal justice system. As a result, we must make changes that acknowledge and rectify this discrimination.”
A Victorian government spokesperson told the National Indigenous Times that changes “are being made” to address the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system. The government has committed to bringing health care contracts in women’s prisons under state control.
Donna said the system continued to fail her daughter after her death too. “[T]he prison, Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Department of Justice, Justice Health all said that my Veronica’s death didn’t need an inquest, that there was nothing to see here, business as usual.
“You patted each other on the back for a job well done in your debrief.
“Aboriginal women being incarcerated and dying in custody is so normalised that there would be no inquest if it weren’t for the bravery and care of Coroners Court who saw that Veronica’s death wasn’t right…
“My Poccum should not have been locked up. She should not have begged for her life. She should be here with me today. If we do not change bail laws today, it will be someone else’s daughter tomorrow.
“To the Premier Daniel Andrews, you should hang your head in shame. You need to do your job and get our daughters out of prisons. No more cover ups. No more unintended consequences. It’s time to save our daughters. It’s time to change the law. It’s time for Poccum’s law.”