Ms TIERNEY (Minister for Corrections) (15:50:12) — This bill makes a range of changes to improve the operation of the corrections system and to enhance community safety. Most of the changes are clearly reasonable, and I note that this bill receives broad support across the chamber. It addresses the inadequacy of contraband penalties and closes loopholes that currently exist in the prison setting.
Contraband is a constant battle, and Corrections Victoria and the government will continue to strengthen our regime to prevent contraband from entering our prisons and impacting on the safe and secure operations within. This bill will boost security at Adult Parole Board of Victoria hearings, ensuring that parolees and prisoners are under the watchful eye of corrections officers, ensuring the safety of those present.
I know that the coalition are planning to put some amendments to this section of the bill, with the aim of involving protective services officers. As I said in other conversations leading into today, this is not supported by the police or the parole board. It would cause role confusion in the event of a situation, and it is not necessary as corrections officers are trained and equipped to deal with those situations. Clearly the government does not support those amendments, and while it might be correct to suggest that the parole board has relied on police previously for security, as Mr O’Donohue has said today, it does not mean that this is the best way to manage security issues. We agree with Victoria Police (VicPol) that our specially trained prison officers are best placed to provide this function.
There is a section of the bill that puts beyond doubt the parole laws the government introduced last year regarding prisoners who have been convicted of murdering a police officer. This is part of the government’s ongoing task of ensuring Victoria has the toughest parole system, with community safety at its heart.
This bill will also see a paid prisoner employment scheme trialled for prisoners as they near the end of their custodial sentence. It will see a small number of appropriately screened prisoners nearing release allowed to work for a minimum wage in a real-life job. It is hoped that approximately 20 to 25 prisoners will participate. As I stated, it is a pilot but it is designed to do two things: firstly, to provide prisoners with the practical skills we take for granted going to a regular job, skills that are often lost during a stint in prison; and secondly, to provide a pool of funds accessible to victims of crime. Twenty per cent of the scheme’s earnings would be available to any registered victim of crime, and again the opposition has flagged amendments to this area of the bill, proposing to deduct moneys from the prisoner’s earnings to cover the cost of incarceration.
Mr O’Donohue mentioned today that he would be seeking 20 per cent of the earnings to be provided back to the state. Given that 20 per cent of the earnings is already quarantined for saving, ours makes available 20 per cent for victims and the coalition’s proposal seeks another 20 per cent to be paid back to the government. It is clear that the opposition will remove or quarantine 60 per cent of earnings, which in all likelihood would be a minimum wage role. The government believes that this is a significant disincentive for engaging in the program and will therefore result in less money for victims.
Mr O’Donohue also raised concerns brought up by Police Association Victoria regarding the power of security officers to hold the prisoner and to hand them over to police. This is to help police so that there are no security issues when they attend. If parole is cancelled, police will attend to execute a warrant from the adult parole board, so police return the parolee back to prison. In the meantime prison officers will have the power to detain the parolee until police attend. We do not support the amendments, because they have the ability to lessen the amount provided for victims. The opposition’s amendments would provide a disincentive, as I said, for prisoners to work and in doing so would mean less money would be available to victims. Apart from creating a disincentive for prisoners to engage in the program, we also know from the Northern Territory that this reduces the amount of money on offer to victims.
Now, in relation to a number of other comments that have been made in the second-reading debate, Ms Pennicuik from the Greens asked what is meant by ‘drug of dependence’, stating that it is not defined elsewhere in the statute book. In response I would say to her it is indeed defined elsewhere in the statute book. It is defined in section 3 of the Corrections Act 1986, and it is also defined in the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981.
Ms Pennicuik also raised why drugs of dependence are in the more severe category 1. The government’s response is that given the issues with drugs in the community, and particularly in our prison system, and the harm that they pose to both prisoners and our prison staff, the government believes that it is a more serious type of contraband and it is therefore put in category 1. Having drugs included in category 1 items is a recognition of the organised criminal element that is often connected with the drug trade. Ensuring that this activity is linked to more significant sanctions, we believe, is appropriate. It also sends a signal to those who wish to attempt to smuggle drugs into prison that the intended target might get something else rather than their illicit package; they could well get a longer prison sentence.
Ms Pennicuik also asked what the rationale was for prison officers being a preferred option by the APB and VicPol. In response I would say that this was because prison officers are appropriately trained, having been taken from the prison officer pool at the Melbourne Assessment Prison. They are also best able to assist VicPol in executing the warrant to return a prisoner to prison, without taking extra police off the beat for each hearing.
The bill also covers a wide range of sensible updates and changes, such as clarifying the legal framework for firearms use inside a prison during an emergency, improving the use of drug and alcohol testing on parolees or offenders on community orders and providing explicit powers regarding electronic monitoring, as well as a number more.
The bill has wide support as a result of wide consultation that has been undertaken by the department in the drafting, and I believe this is reflected and is shown in the support that is generally here in this chamber. It puts community safety first, and it does so through rational, well-reasoned changes to a raft of systems and processes currently in place.
There have been a number of comments by Ms Pennicuik, and Ms Patten also, in relation to drug and alcohol programs in prisons. What we have before us at the moment is a piece of legislation, and of course when we are dealing with drugs and alcohol in legislation it would not be appropriate if we were not running the appropriate courses in drug and alcohol treatment in our prisons. I am happy to provide further information to Ms Pennicuik on this issue. I know that she has had significant interest in this area for some time. She raised a number of questions during the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing on this matter. I do have some information on me that I can convey today, but given that we are actually dealing with the legislation my preference and my focus today is to deal with the clauses in the bill before us. As I said, I am more than happy to take those questions or those notions that were expressed by Ms Pennicuik in her second-reading speech on notice, and I think in all fairness I would be able to provide that by the end of the week.
Having said that, I also wish to deal with the issues Ms Patten raised about provisions in the bill regarding the prohibition of drug paraphernalia. I do not think it comes as any surprise at this point in time that Corrections Victoria have a policy not to allow needles into prison environments. That is to ensure the safety of our prison staff while preventing the spread of drug use and communicable diseases that accompany that drug use. I know there are different views on that, but that is the stated policy. I can say that the new contraband offences also ensure that those people who wish to traffic drugs and drug paraphernalia into our prisons, and indeed prisoners who would be the target of those people in the drug trade, will need to think twice about this trade. As I said before, those prisoners might get further the jail time as a result.
This is, as other people have stated, a bill that covers off on a number of different aspects of the corrections system, whether it be paid employment — this new pilot that is being proposed — whether it is about the coverage of security at the APB or whether it is about contraband or indeed further intense screening for certain drugs. This I think is a well-balanced offering in terms of changes that are required for the system not just to work more effectively but to provide us with an opportunity to introduce a new scheme that really is about providing a pilot that will enable people to transition back into the community more readily. That will then receive evaluation, and if indeed that is deemed successful, there may be an opportunity to expand that pilot so that we can see other prisoners towards the end of their sentence being able to start utilising skills and participating in work that will enable them to have a more successful entry back into the communities in which they live. I commend the bill to the house, and I look forward to the committee stage.
Motion agreed to.
Read second time.