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Criminal record reform to provide more opportunities for rehabilitation

December 16th, 2020

Member spotlight: Woor-Dungin

After years of consultation, lobbying, research and engagement, Victoria is about to become the last state in Australia to have its own spent convictions’ legislation.

In February this year, the State Attorney-General Jill Hennessy announced Victoria would be joining the rest of the nation in the significant criminal record reform. The legislation was introduced into the Parliament in October, and those who have pushed for the reform are confident it will become law early next year.

 

Stan Winford, Associate Director – Research, Innovation and Reform at RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice, said the next step in the process was to ensure widespread awareness of the change. Under the new legislation, minor historical offences will not be barriers to those people wanting work or housing or even prevent them undertaking volunteer work.

The discrimination based on old criminal offences has been particularly onerous for Aboriginal people and women. But the legislation removes barriers to what can be a lasting rehabilitation.

Central to shifting the parameters of the argument around spent convictions was the work of the Woor-Dungin Criminal Record Discrimination Project, led by Michael Bell, who convened the CDRP Advisory Committee and Christa Momot, Woor-Dungin’s former project co-ordinator. Together they focussed on a community development approach that fostered extensive participation and engagement among Aboriginal people, many of whom shared their stories of criminal record discrimination.

Stan and his RMIT University colleague Bronwyn Naylor undertook research and developed a law reform strategy that highlighted the injustice and stigma Aboriginal people had endured through criminal record discrimination, while raising awareness of the unpredictable effects of the lack of regulation of such records. The final important element of the work was to connect the reform proposal to the Aboriginal Justice Agreement policy development process.

Three years ago, the Aboriginal Justice Forum at Swan Hill unanimously endorsed the Woor-Dungin project’s call for reform and recommended that the government introduce spent convictions’ legislation.

Victoria’s long road to achieve it has been at odds with every other state. The last state to embrace spent convictions was South Australia in 2008-09, but Victoria has lagged well behind despite trying more than a decade ago to establish its own scheme.

Stan believes there have been several factors explaining Victoria’s slow embrace of the idea. “Law and order politics have become a more significant driver of what governments want to do,’’ he says. But Aboriginal people have also shifted their language around spent convictions to incorporate it into the broader discussions in Victoria about self-determination and the Treaty process currently underway in the state.

While the absence of a spent convictions scheme has created significant barriers for Aboriginal people, it has also been an issue for incarcerated women, many of whom are in jail because they carry the burden of their partner’s offending. Critical to the importance of a spent convictions scheme is that it can help those with minor records to escape the cycle of recidivism.

“It’s a really important part of the overall set of things we can do to stop the cycle repeating,’’ Stan says.

An important step in providing the basis for cross-party support for the legislation in Parliament was achieved through a parliamentary committee inquiry chaired by Reason Party MP Fiona Patten, that heard evidence on country from Aboriginal people who had been discriminated against because of historical minor offences.

The announcement of the legislation being brought to Parliament, led to the Aboriginal Justice Caucus remarking that the scheme would reduce unfairness and promote participation in employment and community life.

“As we know, Aboriginal people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and are disproportionately impacted by the stigma and discrimination associated with having a criminal record,’’ the Caucus said.

Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said that those who had proven they were willing and able to change, to make a positive contribution to society, should be given every opportunity to do so.

“A minor offence in the past should not be a life sentence – this scheme will break the cycle of disadvantage faced by too many Victorians as they seek to turn their lives around,’’ she said at the time.

In the next steps, Woor-Dungin and RMIT’s CIJ, have partnered with the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) and the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation to develop resources that will help Aboriginal job-seekers with a criminal history to overcome impediments to work and offer practical help to potential employers keen to hire them.
 

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