Methamphetamine Inquiry highlights postcode injustice

street art with Walter White

A recent Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into the Supply and use of Methamphetamines, particularly ice, in Victoria indicates that postcode injustice is behind the patchy response to the drug in regional and rural Victoria.

In 2013 Goulburn Valley CLC made a submission to the Victorian Parliament’s Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee. In it we shared our experience and stressed that substance abuse often goes hand in hand with offences involving dishonesty and violence, including family violence. We also noted that there was growing use of ice in our community and that existing strategies have been ineffective or inadequate and have contributed to the increased use of the drug within the Goulburn Valley.

The Inquiry’s report released this month cites our Managing Lawyer, Kaz Gurney, who told the committee that methamphetamine use may be particularly associated with living in a rural area:

“The Goulburn Valley area has a relatively high number of citizens who are continuously unemployed or obtain only seasonal work and therefore rely on welfare payments. Contributing factors include generational poverty, the loss of local manufacturing and food processing industries, the increased use of cheap itinerant labour for seasonal work, and the ongoing effects of the recent prolonged drought.

Shepparton in particular has been identified as containing an above average population of citizens who are suffering high levels of socio-economic disadvantage. Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centre’s clients are primarily drawn from those same members of the community. Their situation is compounded by a range of associated issues such as unstable and unaffordable housing, poor education, low employment prospects, financial distress, relationship breakdown, and their consequent separation from the mainstream. Poor mental health is the almost inevitable consequence of living in such circumstances and the abuse of alcohol, other legal drugs and illicit substances [including methamphetamine] the perceived panacea for it.”

Local Magistrate Ms Stella Stuthbridge noted an increase in the family violence lists in her courts where the violence is related to methamphetamine use:

“I have observed a worrying increase in the level of family violence. A recent read of the ‘Police applied for’ intervention orders in Shepparton Court disclosed that ice featured in nearly every matter. A father’s uncontrolled rage at his young family when unable to access the drug, a young girl, post withdrawal, engaging in 6 weeks of extreme violence towards her mother, and young men terrorising their partners and mothers to obtain cash. The litany of abuse and the level of uncontrolled violence are indescribable.”

Herb Goonen from Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative noted that for young Aboriginal people ice was easier to get than alcohol:

“It is actually not easy for a 16-year-old or a 15-year-old to get alcohol — not impossible, but it is not easy. Drug dealers do not ask for ID. They will sell straight to the kids if the kids have the money. We are seeing 15-year-old kids and 16-year-old kids who are easily using ice.”

Kaz Gurney also noted that sentencing and treatment options are especially limited in rural areas. She told the committee that:

“Not only are the grounds under the SSDTA [Severe Substance Dependence Treatment Act 2010] limited and the procedure for invoking it difficult and time consuming, there are also few facilities or resources available for working with mandated clients… De Paul House at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne is at this stage the only secure facility to cater for the treatment of involuntarily committed drug dependent patients.”

It was heartening that among the Inquiry’s 54 recommendations were several that mirrored those contained in our 2013 submission, notably in relation to Therapeutic Justice, problem-solving courts and Justice Reinvestment.

The Inquiry recommended that the government investigate how Justice Reinvestment could best be utilised in drug-related diversion and treatment programs. Under Justice Reinvestment, taxpayer funds that would otherwise be directed to prisons are redirected to early intervention and diversion programs in the local communities from where the offenders originate and to which they will undoubtedly return. Such an approach would require changes to bail, sentencing, parole and release policies that would see more low-level offenders (in particular) released into the community on programs. The resulting financial savings would be reinvested in improving their neighbourhoods, especially housing opportunities, and the provision of better health, job training, education and sporting facilities.

The Inquiry noted that in the USA and the UK, Justice Reinvestment now attracts support from both progressive and conservative sides of the political spectrum due to a perception that “imprisonment is an inefficient and wasteful use of scarce public resources. The Committee believes there is merit in the concepts of justice reinvestment and therapeutic justice.”

Recommendations 32 and 33 addressed the need to expand specialist drug and therapeutic courts. In 2013 we proposed a model of therapeutic jurisprudence for the Goulburn Valley, similar to the Court Integrated Services Program (CISP) – currently operating in the Melbourne, Sunshine and Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Courts – but driven by an external agency. While the Inquiry did not make a specific recommendation for our region, we believe that a recent funding submission we put to the Legal Services Board would allow us to establish a Therapeutic Justice partnership with Primary Care Connect that would make this approach a reality in our region.

The Drug Court currently operates only in Dandenong. Recommendation 33 called for an expansion of the operation of the Drug Courts in Melbourne, Geelong, Sunshine and Gippsland. We would argue that any such expansion should also include Shepparton.

While we welcome the Inquiry’s report, and endorse the Editorial in The Age on 8 September that praised the report for avoiding a populist law-and-order response, we note that the ball is now in the government’s court.

However, an election looms. While the current government has promised to expedite their response to the report, their ability to deliver on that promise hinges on their re-election. Whichever party wins in November, we hope that they heed the Inquiry’s call to action and look for smarter ways to deliver justice in Victoria.


Image: jaroh via Flickr, creative commons


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