Indigenous anger as govt rejects justice reform calls

Aboriginal and human rights advocates have blasted the Victorian government's response to a truth-telling inquiry into the child protection and criminal justice systems.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission made 46 recommendations in an interim report published in September, after 84 witnesses spoke across 27 days of public hearings into the systems.

The state government has accepted four of the recommendations in full and 24 in principle, it announced on Wednesday.

Another 15 remain under consideration, including standalone Indigenous justice and child protection systems and a new independent police oversight body.

Three recommendations have been rejected outright, including urgently raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years without exceptions, and to outlaw the detention of children under 16 years.

Others knocked back were to create a presumption in favour of bail for all offences except murder, terrorism and similar charges, and beef up the state's Charter of Human Rights.

Public hearing of the Yoorrook Justice Commission
The Yoorrook recommendations came after 84 witnesses spoke across 27 days of public hearings.

Yoorrook chair Eleanor Bourke said commissioners were disappointed with the government's rejection.

"Recommendations regarding the Bail Act and the minimum age of criminal responsibility and detention are crucial given the alarming over-incarceration of First Peoples adults and children, and ongoing deaths in custody," she said.

"These recommendations were not made lightly. They go to the heart of addressing ongoing injustice against First Peoples."

The commission expects progress on the 15 recommendations that remain under consideration and warns it could call extra hearings later in 2024 to hold the government to account.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service said the response was unworthy of the heart-wrenching truths told to the commission.

"We have waited over 210 days for the Victorian government to respond to the Yoorrook for Justice Report and it reads like it was slapped together overnight," chief executive Nerita Waight said.

"It is so disappointing that the Victorian government did not take this more seriously and develop a more detailed response that supported in full all recommendations."

She said it felt like "paralysis" had set into the government since Jacinta Allan took over from Daniel Andrews as premier.

First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria co-chair Ngarra Murray was frustrated by the same old sticking points arising and disappointed with the disrespect shown to community members who participated in the inquiry.

"The government's stubbornness when it comes to the slow timeline for raising the age is very frustrating," she said.

"We won’t let it rest."

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service CEO Nerita Waight
Aboriginal Legal Service CEO Nerita Waight and others have slammed the government's response.

The Human Rights Law Centre described the response as feeble and branded the government's plan to only raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12, before lifting it to 14 with some exceptions, as a betrayal of Victoria’s children.

"The premier must answer why she has not acted on the clear calls of Yoorrook, Aboriginal leaders, organisations and communities and instead chosen a path that will keep harming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children locked away in youth prisons," the centre's managing lawyer Monique Hurley said.

Treaty and First Peoples Minister Natalie Hutchins said the Allan government was taking the recommendations seriously, when asked why people should bother telling their traumatic stories if it does not implement the changes.

She said she understood the frustration of Aboriginal people wanting quicker solutions after having to battle the effects of colonisation for more than 200 years.

"But we have an obligation as a government to the Victorian people to make sure that we get the laws and the changes and the policy settings right," she told reporters.

Ms Allan is scheduled to give evidence before the commission in late April as part of its latest inquiry into the land, sky and waters.

Yoorrook's final report is due to be delivered in 2025.

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