Alcohol problems not a crime

Alcohol problems will no longer be a crime in Melbourne and throughout the State of Victoria in policy changes that will see public drunkenness become a health issue instead of a criminal matter by the end of 2023. The move was announced by Victoria’s Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes following a Government report last year into decriminalising public drunkenness and the development of an alternative, health-based response.

It’s just one of many changes around the globe that recognise that treating human frailties more compassionately, and with a health-led response, produces better outcomes, often at less cost, than treating them as crimes. And it’s a lesson for countries on how they might deal not only with alcohol problems, but with drugs, gambling and even divorce.

The change highlights the need to have health services and early interventions ready and prepared to deal with such policy changes. According to The Age, the new response to public drunkenness will involve dedicated services for First Nations communities across the state; services for non-Indigenous people in metropolitan Melbourne and a 24/7 hotline service to support service providers.

It’s a policy change that was recommended more than 30 years ago by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and one that recognises that large and disproportionate number of First Nations people who find themselves in Australian prisons.

If the same principles of early intervention and compassionate support for vulnerable groups – instead of too-late, sometimes harmful legal interventions – were to be applied more broadly, better solutions to many of society’s social problems would quickly emerge. For separating families, for instance, such an approach would provide a much-needed lifeline and save many lives.