The Victorian Coroner’s findings that the tragic death of Veronica Nelson could have been avoided, and that she was failed by the state’s criminal justice system, including its ‘discriminatory’ Bail laws, highlight the urgent need for reform to keep people safe and ensure prison is only ever used as a last resort, says Jesuit Social Services.

“Any death associated with our justice system is a tragedy, and it is particularly true in this case, as the Coroner has found significant failings at a number of points of Veronica Nelson’s contact with the system. Ultimately, the Coroner has concluded that Victoria’s current Bail laws have a discriminatory impact on First Nations people,” says Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards.

“An effective and humane justice system is one based on the principles of prevention, early intervention and restorative justice where incarceration is used only as a last resort and, where it is used, rehabilitation is the priority. Diverting people from further engagement with the justice system every time they touch it should be a priority – starting with their contact with police and then when they appear in court.

“In contrast to this, changes to our Bail system in 2017 and 2018 have led to unprecedented numbers of people on remand – which has been a contributing factor in the state’s overall prison numbers doubling in the past 10 years. Given 44 per cent of people who exit the prison system return within two years, increased levels of incarceration aren’t supporting the stronger, more cohesive communities we want. As the Coroner stated, these laws disproportionately impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are already sadly overrepresented in our criminal justice system.

“This tragic case must be the catalyst for the system reform that many in the community service and legal fraternities, including Jesuit Social Services, have long advocated for. This includes reforming the bail system and ensuring when people are incarcerated, they receive effective support including health care to help them exit the system better off than when they entered.

“This tragedy has also drawn attention to the abysmal performance of multinational for-profit companies contracted to provide health care to those in custody. While we welcome the recent news that public health providers will deliver healthcare in the state’s two women’s prisons, the Government is at the same time replacing one for-profit provider with another, whose international track record is no better, in our men’s prisons. All healthcare in the prison system should be delivered by trusted providers to support tailored, effective approaches,” says Ms Edwards.

In its 2022 Victorian election platform, A state of opportunity, Jesuit Social Services called for the state’s regressive bail laws which have made it more difficult to access bail to be repealed, and the re-introduction of alternative sentencing options such as home detention and suspended sentences.

“Wherever possible, the justice system should aim to support people in the community and keep them connected with family, education and employment, ensuring prison is only used where there is no alternative option. Alternative sentencing options would not only reduce the number of people in prison, but give people who have contact with the justice system every opportunity to address the underlying problems behind their behaviour and lead more positive lives.

“We also call on the Victorian Government to develop state-wide alternatives to custody for people with short sentences and to legislate for a presumption against short-term prison sentences. Preventing people from becoming entrenched in the criminal justice system and reducing the number of people in our prison system will ultimately benefit all Victorians,” says Ms Edwards.

“The multiple failings that led to the tragic death of Ms Nelson have been laid bare and cannot be repeated. Now is the time for urgent reform to ensure our justice system supports, not further harms, vulnerable people.”

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