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Decriminalizing homelessness: Petty Offenses Symposium at University of Miami School of Law

admin - October 16, 2019 - petty offences

 

Last month, the University of Miami held a symposium on petty offences to explore, among other things, the use of litigation and human rights advocacy to fight the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness. It drew upon the experience from different countries including from Africa (e.g. Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda), the Caribbean (Guyana, Jamaica), Asia (India) and Europe (Hungary).

In the United States, homelessness is a national crisis that currently affects millions of people and poses significant policy challenges at federal, state and local levels. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Exchange National Survey, a total of 552,830 people experienced homelessness on a single night in 2018. This number represents a total of 17 out of every 10,000 people. California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington, are some of the states that present the highest homeless rates.

At the symposium, the debate focused on the criminalization of homelessness and the connection between petty offenses and marginalized populations. The participants agreed that homelessness is a serious problem in the US, but opinions varied regarding the idea of “criminalization of homelessness.” Some advocates suggested that efforts to criminalize homelessness are on the rise, while others believed that the authority to regulate low-level public disorder in cities is historically low.  

Some argued that laws that regulate panhandling and sleeping in public punish people based on their conduct and not their status as homeless. This group also claimed that the term “criminalization” is misleading since often the cases result only in civil penalties like fines. However, advocates (including former homeless activists) claimed that certain behaviors are life-sustaining activities, which derive from the status of homeless. Therefore, to punish the behavior means to punish the category of people. They also maintained that most ordinances include criminal penalties, and that the term “criminalization” comprises measures like clean-ups of encampments, and confiscation of personal property – even though arrests and informal exercises of police power remain prominent means of criminalization.

Numbers show that people experiencing homelessness are highly, if not disproportionately, involved in the criminal justice system, making the intersection of petty offenses and marginalized populations an essential issue to examine.  

Petty offenses in the United States are tainted by two facts: first, people accused of committing low-level offenses are overwhelmingly poor, and the vast majority are people of color. The correlation between race and poverty is a consequence of the demographics of poverty in the country, which results in people of color disproportionately feeling the effects of policies punishing poverty.

Petty offenses are worth millions of dollars and corporations are, undoubtedly, profiting from it (from the control of communications in jails and prisons to prison labor and private prison contracts at the federal level). The current US criminal justice system is not so much focused on public safety but on capitalizing on mass incarceration. The latter also highlights the deep racial and socioeconomic disparities and creates an essential link between poor and marginalized communities and incarceration for low-level offenses.

Pre-trial detention and the bail industry are two more elements to factor into the equation. Most people charged with low-level offenses need to pay bond or risk remaining in jail for an indefinite period. This creates an unconstitutional “debtors’ prison,” and a very profitable business for bail companies that are largely shielded from public scrutiny.

One of the main conclusions of the symposium was the key role of litigation that challenges the criminalization of homelessness. There’s a need to approach lawyering in a way that humanizes and empowers people experiencing homelessness. Lawyers and advocates must center the voices of people experiencing homelessness in litigation and advocacy strategies and work at local, state, and federal levels.

Finally, the commitment to continue the fight for alternatives to incarceration remains. This includes equal access to justice and counsel, more effective diversion programs (special treatments for mental illness and substance abuse), and the abolition of bail for low-level offenses.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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