Protective custody is a public safety power exercisable by police under section 128 Police Administration Act (NT) to apprehend an extremely intoxicated person, without affecting an arrest, and hold them in custody while the person remains intoxicated. Once the person sobers up, they are simply released. The Act was introduced in the May 2013 sittings of Parliament and passed in the June 2013 sittings after 43 committee stage amendments. The Act has been developed from the Country Liberal Party’s pre-election platform and has been long-awaited since the CLP took power in the general election on 25 August 2012. The top priority for the CLP immediately after the election was to effectively ‘dismantle’ the banned drinkers register, which was a list of persons subject to a ‘Banning Alcohol and Treatment notice’ under the Alcohol Reform (Prevention of Alcohol-related Crime and Substance Misuse) Act. Licensees were required to scan the ID of each person purchasing takeaway alcohol and if a person was identified as a person on the register, the licensee could not sell that person any alcohol. The new mandatory rehabilitation scheme is the CLP’s alternate strategy against alcohol abuse in the Territory.
The scheme is unique to the Territory and there has been no previous evidence-based research to indicate its likelihood of success. The mandatory rehabilitation scheme has been criticised by medical bodies, Indigenous groups and other advocate groups. The scheme has been criticised for effectively criminalising public drunkenness and removing judicial oversight from the process. There also appears to be an overarching concern that a person’s rehabilitation from alcohol dependency is unlikely to be achieved from participating in a 12-week treatment program and there are further issues with the mandatory nature of the treatment. There has also been commentary from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner who suggests the scheme breaches fundamental human rights as it effectively detains people who have not committed a crime.
The government has responded to critics by emphasising the objectives of the Act, which is to bring people into an environment where they can receive treatment for their alcohol problems — it is not a scheme intended to criminalise public drunkenness or detain people who have not committed an offence. Given the severe extent of the Territory’s alcohol problems, a novel scheme with extreme measures is required to care for people.
SUE ERICKSON is Assistant Parliamentary counsel at the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in Darwin.