Second reading: COVID-19 OMNIBUS (EMERGENCY MEASURES) BILL 2020

CARROLL (Niddrie—Minister for Crime Prevention, Minister for Corrections, Minister for Youth Justice, Minister for Victim Support)

I rise to make this contribution in support of the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most significant challenge our state has faced in generations. This virus has spread throughout the world at a frightening pace. It has overwhelmed health systems, taken tens of thousands of lives and had a profound impact on our way of life.

Recognising the unprecedented threat posed by COVID-19, the Victorian government has acted decisively to protect the lives of our citizens. We have enacted unprecedented measures to flatten the curve in order to protect our health system and to support the Victorian economy to survive the unprecedented disruption the virus is causing.

The COVID-19 bill proposes a broad range of urgent measures with the singular aim of protecting Victorians from the threat of this global pandemic and allowing essential services to continue. Included among these are measures focused on responding to COVID-19 in the justice system.

There is a legal maxim that says that justice delayed is justice denied. This bill ensures that our justice system continues to function throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so it supports victims of crime by ensuring that justice can continue to be served. More specifically there are a number of initiatives in the bill that directly benefit victims of crime. In parallel with the expansion of the use of the use of audiovisual technology in the courts, we have preserved the right for victims to give their views on audiovisual applications including through submissions via audiovisual links. Amendments will also allow audiovisual links and audio to conduct ground rules hearings. Ground rules hearings establish rules that support witnesses who are children or adults with cognitive impairments through a criminal proceeding. They require several people in attendance, which would not be possible physically under social distancing rules.

These changes will complement existing operational measures that have been put in place to support victims of crime during this period. The Victims of Crime Helpline is continuing to offer its full suite of services with staff now working from home, and our range of other victims programs delivered in partnership with community groups continue their important work, albeit through new ways of remote working to comply with social distancing rules.

Custodial environments are challenging places even at the best of times. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented particular risks to prisons and youth justice facilities and challenges for the professionals who operate them. The inherent close contact and limited movement and space in these environments means the risk of transmission of communicable illness and disease is markedly higher, particularly for vulnerable cohorts. Worldwide we have seen outbreaks of COVID-19 in a number of prison systems, with deaths among prisoners and staff. We have also seen prison systems experience significant unrest as a result of COVID-19 measures.

I am pleased to be able to report that at present there are no confirmed cases in either the prison or the youth justice system. This is a testament to the hard work and dedication of Corrections Victoria and youth justice staff right across Victoria. They are crucial frontline workers who are doing work that is incredibly challenging, and I would like to put on the record in this house of Parliament my gratitude and recognition of their daily efforts in keeping our prison and youth justice systems—and the Victorian community—safe. I am very proud of them.

Over recent months the leadership and staff of our prison and youth justice systems have acted quickly to implement a range of measures to manage the risk of COVID-19 in the corrections system. We have taken a public health approach and our measures have been informed by medical and other expert advice. Personal visits and non-essential professional visits across corrections and youth justice have been suspended. This is not a decision we made lightly, given the impact on prisoners and their friends and families and the importance of pro-social connections. We are increasing the use of phones and other audiovisual technology to support the continued delivery of programs and visits. Staff have been provided with personal protective equipment, measures to comply with social distancing have been put in place and enhanced cleaning of custodial and youth justice facilities has been put in place. We are screening everyone who enters prisons and youth justice centres, including temperature testing. Quarantining of individuals with COVID-like symptoms is also taking place. In the adult corrections system all new prisoners have been completing a 14-day protective quarantine period. For individuals in quarantine a range of supports to continue to deliver health and other programs are in place. The corrections commissioner has also confirmed that the power to award emergency management days will be utilised in response to COVID-19. Emergency management days are a privilege, not a right, and we passed laws last year to ensure anyone who is involved in a disturbance that creates an emergency gives up the privilege to be considered for any future emergency management days. There is a long history of emergency management days being applied under governments on both sides of politics.

This bill codifies some of these existing measures as we continue to apply them as part of our system-wide response, and it also provides additional tools necessary to continue to prevent, detect and mitigate the risk of COVID-19 to the prison and youth justice systems. This bill strikes the right balance between ensuring all the necessary tools are available for management of this risk, while being a reasonable and proportionate response in line with community expectations. All of these changes will sunset in six months, reflecting the emergency nature of the bill.

Turning specifically to adult corrections, the bill provides the tools necessary to prevent, detect and mitigate the risk of COVID-19 to our prison system. It codifies the restrictions on prison visits and provides for alternative arrangements to be put in place to maintain family and community ties for the offender—for example, through telephone calls and video calls. Some professional visits, such as meeting with lawyers, have been permitted, however, measures have been put in place to ensure that there is no physical contact or that appropriate distancing is maintained.

This bill formalises in legislation the operation of protective quarantine units. Corrections Victoria has established protective quarantine units across the five prisons that receive new prisoners into custody—Melbourne Assessment Prison, Metropolitan Remand Centre, Port Phillip Prison, Ravenhall Correctional Centre and our flagship women’s prison, the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre. The bill includes requirements around the observations of prisoners in these units, and in addition to this they are being supported with access to phone calls, video visits, books, education materials, and health and support services. This includes Aboriginal liaison officers and specialist mental health services.

The bill will also provide additional quarantine and lockdown powers to address the COVID-19 risk. Should the risk of COVID-19 increase or in the event of a suspected case or a case of transmission, a prison, more than one prison, or all prisons, may be locked down. In exercising these powers, decision-makers must have regard to the safety, protection and welfare of prisoners and others, and they must also consider health advice.

The bill formalises arrangements to enable medical examination, assessment, testing and treatment for the purposes of preventing, detecting or mitigating the risks of COVID-19. It is expected that treatment will usually continue to be conducted on prison premises. Work has taken place to ensure we have the capability to manage any COVID-19 cases within prisons. However, the bill does allow prisoners to be transferred to hospital or other medical facilities. This is expected to occur in only serious cases of a COVID-19 risk, a suspected or detected case. Prisoners retain the right to consent to treatment under this provision, but should treatment be refused the other powers in the bill providing for isolation and quarantine could be used to manage any risks they might pose.

This bill will also make amendments to ensure the youth justice custodial facilities continue to function despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill will allow the issuing of quarantine directions in youth justice custodial facilities to enable the testing, treatment and care and quarantine of prisoners and clients during the pandemic. There is a 14-day limit to each order under this provision. There are a range of other safeguards in place should these directions be utilised, including that young people receive medical and mental health support and treatment and are observed at least every 15 minutes while in isolation. The bill also requires that young people have at least daily access to the outdoors, as well as other entitlements they would normally receive in custody.

In addition to prisons and youth justice facilities, our staff in community corrections and the Youth Justice Community Support Service have continued their important work supervising offenders on court orders. I want to again place on the record my admiration for the work that our staff in these services perform. Individuals subject to court, parole and other supervision orders must continue to comply with the conditions of these orders. However, consistent with physical distancing requirements and in order to protect the health and safety of staff, measures have been put in place to modify how supervision and appointments are being conducted. The bill will support this by enabling remote attendance and reporting for youth justice community orders, making amendments to allow pre-sentence reports to be provided in a verbal format, and changing the service requirements for documents. Importantly the bill supports the ability to supervise offenders on community correction orders by providing that the Magistrates Court can impose electronic monitoring as a condition on these orders. The Country Court and Supreme Court were given the power to impose electronic monitoring conditions on CCOs under changes made by the previous coalition government.

Before I conclude on this unusual sitting day and unique bill, as a justice minister I wish to put on record my sadness at the tragic loss of life of four police officers last night in the line of duty on the Eastern Freeway. My thoughts are with their families, friends, loved ones and colleagues. In this terrible time and during this pandemic last night’s tragedy is an important reminder of the work of our frontline emergency services and frontline staff, who risk their lives to keep every single member of our community safe day in, day out. I pause and thank each and every one of them.

Finally, I conclude my contribution with a note of hope. Despite the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19, we have seen individuals, communities, organisations and government come together to find solutions and ensure the most vulnerable are supported. I have this in my local community and electorate of Niddrie but also across the portfolios that I am responsible for. We have utilised technology to ensure that vital services for victims of crime continue to get the support they need, and across corrections and youth justice we are finding new ways to ensure that services that keep the community safe continue to run. We have seen our staff across the Department of Justice and Community Safety, our many service delivery partners and individuals across the community go above and beyond in the most difficult of circumstances.

Their actions, like this bill, will allow us to slow the spread—and save lives.

I commend the bill to the house.