Penington Institute commends the work of the Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee on this important report and encourages the Victorian Government to consider all recommendations, in further consultation with stakeholders. Many of the Committee’s findings align with Penington Institute’s own research findings and experience working with frontline workers. Here we highlight six recommendations from the report, which are key to our vision for communities that are safe, healthy and empowered to manage drug use.

Penington Institute’s work is evidence-based, founded on data from many sources including the criminal justice system. Adoption of Recommendation 1 is fundamental to ensuring the rigour and applicability of our work and the work of other organisations seeking to improve community health and wellbeing in relation to drugs, including alcohol and pharmaceuticals.

Legal and policy frameworks should prioritise public health and safety rather than punitive responses through the criminal justice system. The report highlights the benefits of police cautions and court-based diversion programs, with Victoria Police able to use cannabis cautions and drug diversions for other illicit substances. Early interventions and alternatives such as these are critical to keeping people out of the criminal justice system, underscoring the importance of Recommendation 23.

The Victorian Government has found higher rates of high-risk alcohol consumption and recent drug use among those in prison than the general population. The report points to the period immediately following discharge from prison as the most challenging, especially for those with dependency issues. In 2017, the Victorian Coroners Court found that 40% of Victorians who had died from heroin overdose had a prior history of imprisonment. The Inquiry report emphasises the importance of consistent access to treatment, both throughout a custodial sentence and during reintegration into the community.

Penington Institute delivers evidence-based training to frontline staff who work with people who use drugs, to enhance their knowledge and understanding of drug use and how they can contribute to reducing drug-related harms. This has included training for custodial and clinical staff at Victoria’s public prisons under the Department of Justice and Community Safety Naloxone on Release Pilot Program, providing the life-saving opioid overdose reversal drug to people leaving prison. We also offer naloxone training through Needle and Syringe Programs (NSPs) and Community Overdose Protection Education (COPE). Sustained funding is critical to the continuation of these programs and many other essential services that support the health and wellbeing of all Victorians (Recommendations
13, 88, 89 and 91).

Penington Institute welcomes the 100 recommendations for change outlined in this report and looks forward to continuing to work collaboratively with the Victorian Government. Our mission is to support the adoption of approaches to drug use which promote safety and human dignity; a mission with which many of the recommendations in this report align.

Recommendation 1: That the Victorian Government work with key stakeholders across the criminal justice system to improve data collection, accessibility, and transparency throughout the system.

Recommendation 23: That the Department of Justice and Community Safety review the use of verbal and recorded cautions by Victoria Police to inform reform aimed at expanding the use of, and improving the consistency of, cautions across the community.

Recommendation 13: That the Victorian Government increase funding and support to social support providers offering therapeutic interventions for alcohol and other drug use, sexual abuse, violence, and trauma.

Recommendation 88: That the Victorian Government substantially increase funding to ensure that resourcing for services which treat alcohol and other drug use issues in Victorian prisons and the community is commensurate with demand for these services. Funding should also be provided to enhance connections between prison-based and community-based services to facilitate seamless throughcare for incarcerated people re-entering the community.

Recommendation 89: That the Department of Justice and Community Safety strengthen transitional support planning for incarcerated people in both publicly- and privately-operated prisons to ensure continuity of service with regard to mental health and alcohol and other drug treatment following release for those who require it. The Department should engage incarcerated people in transitional planning to ensure that the service meets their needs and that they are familiar with how to access it prior to their release.

Recommendation 91: That the Victorian Government increase funding and other resources available to:
• Corrections Victoria, to support comprehensive pre-release planning for all incarcerated people prior to their reintegration back into the community
• Community-based services – that provide mental health, alcohol and other drug treatment, disability support, education and training, and culturally appropriate support – to assist people exiting prison to reintegrate back into the community.