DOJ Determines Criminalization of Homelessness As Cruel And Unusual Punishment
Homeless Community and Advocates Applaud Department of Justice Briefing Acknowledging This On-Going Torture
On Thursday, August 6, 2015, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) did something it has done only one other time in 20 years: they submitted a “statement of interest” in the US District Court of Idaho in opposition to the criminalization of homeless people. While it doesn’t carry any legal authority, it does tell the courts and most importantly, local governments, that the Justice Department of the US Government holds a legal opinion that to criminalize homelessness is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of constitutional rights. The DOJ Statement of Interest validates homeless organizers and advocates claim that these laws violate the civil and human rights of those experiencing homelessness and poverty.
“Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place,” says the filing. “ If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
The lawsuit was filed by homeless people who say that laws which penalize people for sleeping outdoors effectively make it illegal to be homeless. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prevents any type of cruel and unusual punishment and excessive fines. By outlawing a basic necessity of life such as sleeping, the lawsuit contends that the rules against outdoor camping in cities like Boise amount to punishing someone simply for existing. For once, the judicial system may decide in their favor, rather than continually penalizing them for being alive. If successful, the lawsuit would not remove the law from the books. It would, however, prevent enforcement of it in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, this means that the harassment by police may continue in the future. It would also set a precedent that could allow more lawsuits of this sort to stand on in order to protect homeless rights.
This recent move greatly underscores how important it is to pass the Right to Rest Act in California, Oregon, and Colorado. Legislation in all three states has been introduced to roll back the policy strategy used by most cities to cite and arrest for sleeping or resting in public. It will free up resources to invest instead in housing and other real solutions towards ending homelessness. The case in Boise may prove to be the start of the tide turning back against the abuses homeless people have suffered.
“I am glad to see the federal Department of Justice weigh in on this vital human and constitutional rights issue and I believe it will be helpful to our efforts to end the practice of arresting and citing people for resting or sharing food, which are not malicious, violent, or criminal behaviors but are actually acts of survival.” Said Colorado State Senator John Kefalas (co-sponsor of HB 1254 Colorado Right To Rest Act)
There are estimated to be more than 600,000 homeless people on any given night in the United States, and they have to sleep somewhere. Shelters and housing options are available in some areas but not everywhere, and those that do exist often get filled to capacity immediately. Many homeless people are left with only one option: sleeping outdoors. With ordinances prohibiting outdoor sleeping in cities like Boise, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Sacramento, Oakland and Denver they are then continually moved along by police, preventing them from obtaining essential sleep. Or they are arrested and either fined, incarcerated, or both. This only adds to their burden of homelessness by punishing it. It does not provide solutions to those who need them.
Homelessness ends with a house, not handcuffs.
A copy of the DOJ brief can be found here: http://www.justice.gov/opa/file/643766/download
From Western Regional Advocacy Project and Denver Homeless Out Loud
CONTACT: Denver Homeless Out Loud
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Western Regional Advocacy Project
Denver Homeless Out Loud