Fair laws and equal justice

2020 Victorian Budget Analysis

Victoria’s legal assistance sector experienced a surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lost incomes left many households struggling to meet their daily living costs, with many financial problems escalating into legal problems. Like other essential services, the justice system has been impacted by the public health restrictions – Victorian courts face significant backlogs, and people in prison and youth justice settings have been subject to even tighter restrictions than usual.

This budget provides necessary funding that contributes to managing justice system demand and enabling better access to justice. This includes initiatives to increase the capacity of legal assistance services and the courts, through technological and physical upgrades.

The budget also provides funding for initiatives to improve the wellbeing of people in Victoria’s prisons, including resources for COVID-safe operations, as well as for a vocational training program, mental health counselling for women, and access to the NDIS for young people in the youth justice system.

This Budget includes some modest investments in smart justice initiatives, including crime prevention programs, youth outreach and diversion programs, and continuation of health-justice partnerships. Other Budget initiatives – such as family preservation and reunification, care system reform, the mental health package and the Big Housing Build – will also contribute to addressing the drivers of offending in the long term. However, while these are welcome investments, more targeted investment is required to affect a systemic reorientation of the justice system towards prevention.

 

Positive initiatives 

Crime prevention initiatives   

$3.5m is provided in 2020-21 ($18m/4yrs) for crime prevention programs that address the drivers of offending among priority groups and community safety infrastructure projects.  

 

Embedded youth outreach program  

$1.4m is provided in 2020-21 to continue the Embedded Youth Outreach Program in the existing pilot locations of Werribee and Dandenong, where police officers and youth workers are paired to provide assessment, initial support and referral for vulnerable young people and prevent possible future reoffending. 

 

Decriminalising public drunkenness  

$16m is provided in 2020-21 to commence implementation of a health-based approach to public intoxication. This funding includes expanding Aboriginal Community Controlled Services to provide a culturally safe response to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.   

 

Technology and resources to support Victoria’s fines system 

The technology to manage the administration of Victoria’s fines system will be modernised. Additional resources will be provided to support the administration of the fines system and the Fines Reform Act 2014, including support for victims of family violence. The cost of this initiative is tbc 

 

Supporting community legal centres  

$3m is provided in 2020-21 to community legal centres to ensure that they continue to provide legal services and improve access to justice for Victorians who need support. VCOSS understands this initiative continues the Health Justice Partnerships program.  

 

Additional legal assistance services and information and communications technology upgrades  

$8.3m is provided in 2020-21 to support Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) and other frontline legal assistance services during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and to upgrade technology to enable more Victorians to receive the help they need remotely and digitally. 

 

Continuing the intermediaries program  

$2.4m is provided in 2020-21 for the continuation of the Intermediaries Pilot Program, which provides specialist communication assistance to children or adults with cognitive impairments who are victimsurvivors or witnesses in sexual or homicide offences. 

 

Continuing legal assistance support programs for young Victorians  

$3.9m is provided to VLA in 2020-21 to support the continuation of legal services for children and young people, and to meet demand arising from the Youth Diversion Program, and the Children’s Court’s Youth Control Order and Intensive Bail Order programs. Funding will also be provided to continue VLA’s Preventative Detention Order scheme. 

 

Addressing coronavirus (COVID-19) related delays across the justice system 

VLA will receive an additional $26.1m in 2020-21 ($43.6m/2yrs) to provide more legal services, including duty lawyers and grants of legal aid, to address delays in the criminal justice system during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  

Funding is also being provided for information and communications technology upgrades to improve connectivity across the justice system and increase access to digital hearing services for disadvantaged and remote Victorians 

 

Assistance for victims of crime  

$2.1m is provided in 2020-21 to support the Victims of Crime Helpline and the Victims Register information service. 

 

Remote witness rooms at Victoria Police stations 

$1.2m is provided in 2020-21 for additional remote witness rooms at Victoria Police stations, to ensure witnesses, affected family members and prosecutors have privacy when engaging in court processes at those sites.  

 

Bail and remand court  

$0.5m is provided in 2020-21 to continue Corrections Victoria’s Court Assessment and Prosecution program to service the Bail and Remand Court. 

 

Implementing Youth Control Orders and Intensive Bail Orders 

$3.5m is provided in 2020-21 to continue the Youth Control Order program, which provides the Children’s Court with an intensive and targeted supervision sentencing option. Funding is also provided to continue the Intensive Bail Order program, which provides a supervision and support service for young people awaiting trial. 

 

Specialist family violence integrated court response 

$1.9m is provided in 2020-21 to expand the successful family violence remote hearing service pilot to 10 locations across Victoria, which will enable victimsurvivors and witnesses to provide testimony remotely and safely. Funding is also provided for additional security at existing Specialist Family Violence Courts, to ensure court staff and user safety. 

 

Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal remote hearing services 

$0.8m is provided in 2020-21 to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) for a Digital Service Transformation project and immediate information and communications technology infrastructure upgrades, to enable VCAT to hear important planning and other matters remotely and ensure projects can continue and Victorians still have access to justice. 

 

Court response to coronavirus (COVID-19) 

$20.7is provided in 2020-21 to ensure Victoria’s courts have the physical and technological capacity to continue to operate during the pandemic 

 

Aboriginal community-led responses within the youth justice system  

$1.5m is provided in 202021 ($11.8m/4yrs) to establish and expand programs and supports to help reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal children and young people in the youth justice system, which includes delivery of the Aboriginal Youth Justice Strategy 

 

Supporting people in youth justice and corrections in accessing the National Disability Insurance Scheme  

$1.9m is provided in 2020-21 ($4.8m/2yrs) to meet service needs in custodial and community-based supervision arising from the transition to the NDIS and Victorian disability service reform.   

 

Youth justice staffing and programs  

$12.4m is provided in 2020-21 to support staffing and programs in the custodial and community youth justice systems, including: 

  • multi-agency panels for young people at high risk of offending or reoffending; 
  • current custodial youth justice staffing; 
  • dedicated culturally and linguistically diverse programs and staffing; and 
  • continuing to support current staffing and recruitment, training and retention of custodial staff. 

This will help ensure that youth justice facilities operate safely and high-risk young people have access to appropriate services, and will assist in reducing reoffending. 

The budget also includes $141.2m to develop the Youth Justice Facility at Cherry Creek. 

 

Critical mental health service demand 

$0.8m is provided in 2020-21 to respond to the mental health needs of those in the justice system by providing specialist counselling services to women prisoners who are victims of domestic violence and trauma. 

 

Supporting rehabilitation through vocational training 

$14m is provided in 2020-21 ($21.2m/2yrs) to support vocational education and training programs in Victoria’s correctional facilities.   

 

Corrections and youth justice coronavirus (COVID-19) response 

$103.6m is provided in 2020-21 to further equip Victoria’s corrections and youth justice operations to respond to coronavirus (COVID-19). Funding is provided for additional coronavirus (COVID-19) testing and services for prisoners. Funding also goes towards additional personal protective equipment and disinfection products for the youth justice system, prisons and community correctional services. 

 

 

Further policy directions 

The Youth Justice Strategic Plan 2020-2030 was launched in May 2020. VCOSS looks forward to reforms to youth justice that improve diversion and early intervention, and reduce offending by supporting children, their families, communities and support networks, as well as improving the Youth Justice System.  

It will be important to keep working to align policy and systems reform in Justice with other parts of government.  Through the 2020-21 Budget, the Victorian Government has strengthened support for vulnerable children and families, including by extending support for young people transitioning from out-of-home care and for early intervention programs. But more is required to support children at the earliest risk of offending and prevent children and young people from entering the youth justice system. This includes raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, as well as committing funding to deliver the Youth Justice Strategic Plan.  

This Budget also prioritises funding to manage increased demand on the legal assistance sector, as well as a range of small-scale initiatives that will improve access to justice across the whole system, from policing to courts to custodial settings. We welcome the investment in legal assistance services, and look forward to further funding for community legal services in future budgets, to remedy years of underinvestment 

While we welcome funding for community-led youth justice responses, including the delivery of the Aboriginal Youth Justice Strategy, and funding to implement a public-health response to public drunkenness, no additional funding has been provided to support expansion of Aboriginal community legal services.  Adequately resourcing Aboriginal community controlled organisations, including legal services, is essential to addressing the harms arising from over-incarceration of First Nations people.   

To genuinely reorient the system towards crime prevention, additional resources must be invested in prevention, diversion and alternatives to prison. Having a job helps to prevent justice-system involvement and is also an important part of re-establishing positive community connections.  It will be important to ensure that employment support and new job opportunities are accessible to people who have been involved with the justice system