Stories in philanthropy

Charting the steps from award to the prospect of major legal change

Almost 12 months ago, Woor-Dungin and the Australian Communities Foundation received Philanthropy Australia’s (PA) Indigenous Philanthropy Award for an innovative project that seeks to introduce spent convictions legislation on to the Victorian statute books.

Spent convictions schemes allow people not to disclose old criminal convictions, when they were for minor offences and where a ‘waiting period’ has passed. Victoria is the only Australian state that doesn’t have spent convictions legislation. 

Fast-forward to 2019 and Woor-Dungin representatives made an appearance earlier this month at the Parliament of Victoria's inquiry into a spent convictions scheme. Central to the inquiry is the impact of criminal record discrimination on Aboriginal Victorians.

Woor-Dungin’s work in revealing the impact of the absence of a spent convictions scheme in Victoria on many Aboriginal job seekers has been vital in highlighting the issue for parliamentarians. Convenor of the Woor-Dungin Criminal Record Discrimination Project Advisory Committee (CRDP) Michael Bell said: ‘Woor-Dungin and its partners want to see the Government establish a spent convictions scheme and equal opportunity laws to ensure that old and irrelevant criminal history is not used unfairly against job seekers in Victoria.’

During the project research, various cases were uncovered where the law had been used inappropriately. Taungurung elder Uncle Larry Walsh was given a criminal record as a child when he was taken from his mother Melva as an infant. In those days, children removed from their parents and taken by the state were treated as though they had committed a crime, and their removal was listed as
an offence on their criminal history.

Woor-Dungin research found that Victoria Police now conducts about 700,000 criminal record checks a year. Because there is no spent convictions scheme in Victoria, police rely on their own policy and discretion to decide what information to release. Some of that information is old and irrelevant. But Aboriginal Victorians are often the victims of unnecessary stigma and harm that comes from unregulated disclosure of such information.

The CRDP is now in its fourth year, having built a strong foundation based on extensive consultation with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations and individuals, as well as an extensive network of supporters. The project’s reform recommendations were submitted to the Aboriginal Justice Forum and endorsed by more than 60 Indigenous community organisations, individuals and legal and non-legal groups, and have played a key role in building momentum for reform.

Last August, the State Labor government apologised for the practice of giving criminal records to children removed from care and supported it with legislation to ensure Victoria Police removed those records from its system. The Parliament’s Legal and Social Affairs committee is scheduled to deliver its report on the proposed spent convictions legislation on August 29.

Before then, the committee will visit the Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation at Heywood on August 6. Mr Bell, who is also Winda Mara CEO, said he hoped the visit would give the committee a greater understanding of how the current laws were holding back Aboriginal Victorians.

“A legislated spent convictions scheme, and protections against discrimination in relation to irrelevant criminal history are desperately needed,’’ Mr Bell said.

The CRDP is supported by RMIT University. Stan Winford, Associate Director of RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice convenes the CRDP Law Reform Working Group and can be contacted for further information.

Christa Momot or Stan Winford 

Woor-Dungin website

You can still join us at the Australian Philanthropy Awards 2019 on 22 July at Art Gallery NSW

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