Reducing reliance on the justice system in responding to homelessness

Enforcement-based responses to homelessness and poverty don’t work. Read our clear solutions for ensuring people don’t end up trapped in the justice system.

How we can reduce reliance on the justice system when responding to homelessness

Through our twenty years of frontline work, we know that enforcement-based responses to homelessness and poverty don’t work. Enforcement-based responses effectively criminalise social and health issues, compounding homelessness and creating a further burden on an already stretched justice system.

There are three clear solutions to reduce our current reliance on the justice system and ensure that people experiencing or at risk of homelessness don’t end up trapped in the justice system:

Recommendation 1: Creating a Protocol for people experiencing homelessness in public places

Police and local law enforcement officers are often first responders to homelessness. In addition to having a heavy impact on people experiencing homelessness in Victoria, this creates a costly resource burden and expectation on police, local council, services and courts.

Introducing a Protocol for People Experiencing Homelessness in Public Places would provide a framework and guidance for enforcement officers to exercise discretion and consider cautions as a first option where the offending is directly linked to a person’s vulnerabilities. Melbourne previously had a similar Protocol that was developed for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

This kind of practical, clear guidance would provide the necessary support to engage appropriately with people experiencing homelessness. It would also create referral pathways to appropriate support services as an alternative to fines and charges.

Recommendation 2: Decriminalising poverty offences

From our decades of casework and client evidence, we know that when certain outdated poverty offences, such as begging, are still on the books, there will always be pressure to use them and less opportunity for service-based responses to address the underlying causes of offending. 

We commend the Victorian government for its commitment to decriminalise public drunkenness and to replace it with a public health response. This presents an important opportunity to go further and engage in a wholesale review of the Summary Offences Act and decriminalise other public space offences, particularly begging, which would directly reduce the entrenchment of people experiencing homelessness in the justice system.

Recommendation 3: More effective approaches to fines and homelessness

Every day, we help Victorians who are facing crippling uncertainty about their fines, which are directly related to their circumstances of homelessness. Although the state’s new fines system has some positive reforms for people experiencing homelessness, many are not working in practice. The need for further reforms was recognised by the Fines Reform Advisory Board’s recommendations in December 2020 and the Victorian government’s response.

A key opportunity is to introduce a reformulated special circumstances ‘nexus test’, which will make the fines review process fairer and more accessible. The second opportunity relates to making Fines Victoria’s fines-enforcement review decisions final and binding.  If both of these recommendations are implemented, they would reduce the adverse impact of fines on Victorians experiencing homelessness, along with decreasing the backlog of matters for the Magistrates’ Court.

As Victorians continue to feel the social and economic impacts of COVID-19, improving the fines system is essential for our community’s recovery process.

Read our submissions

See our submissions related to preventing the criminalisation of homelessness

Finding shelter from the law: Fairer responses to homelessness in our communityDownload PDF (2 MB)

Preventing the criminalisation of homelessness

Homelessness is a complex issue that requires systems-level change.

We challenge and change laws that unfairly impact people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

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