Crime and Human Rights (15): The Criminalization of Poverty

A lot of jurisdictions have so-called “public order laws” making it illegal to do what poor people do, and therefore in a sense making it illegal to be poor. “Crimes of misery” include begging, loitering, littering, sitting on sidewalks, lying down on benches, urinating in public, selling in the streets without a license and other things poor people, and especially the homeless, tend to do and often have no choice but doing. Some of those activities may be a nuisance and an unpleasant sight, and even blameworthy when non-poor citizens engage in them, but they’re not an avoidable choice when you’re poor and homeless.

Hence, public order laws disproportionately target poor homeless people who, in addition, have a hard time respecting them. Poverty and homelessness unavoidably result in violations of the law. Ostensibly, there is nothing discriminatory about such laws. If a millionaire were lying on a sidewalk, he would also be in violation of the ordinance. In the words of Anatole France, “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” But, of course, the rich have better things to do.

If activities that are unavoidable parts of life on the streets are forbidden, then it’s not outrageous to claim that deep poverty itself is a crime. If you add to this the fact that many of the homeless are mentally ill, chronically alcoholic or drug addicted, then it’s obvious that their daily conduct will inevitably put them on the wrong side of the law. Even people who try to assist the homeless are sometimes legally forced to stop. Communities often don’t welcome charities that attract homeless people. They fear that the neighborhood may become less appealing as a result. Hence they impose rules limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve, use zoning laws to stop churches from serving food, issue park ordinances outlawing food distribution in public places etc.

It’s obvious that the criminalization of poverty is another poverty trap. A criminal record, jail time or fines won’t help if you’re struggling to get off the streets.

And it’s not just the homeless. Low-wage workers are often subjected to constant suspicions of theft and drug use: they are monitored with CCTV during the working day, they are searched when leaving their shift and tested for drugs when they’re hired. Welfare recipients are fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated about their attempts at finding a job or about the true paternity of their children, supposedly to prevent welfare fraud. Access to public housing comes with a drug test. Etc.

The war on poverty is all too often a war on the poor.

More posts in this series are here.

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