While each country has different legal frameworks, Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states "All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law."
Unfortunately, this basic principle of liberalism exists more in theory than in practice.
Recently, a digital side event to the 31st Session of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice was hosted on the topic of decisive action to reform laws that criminalise poverty and status. The panel was joined by criminal justice leaders from around the world, including South Africa, Brazil, the West Indies and more.
UN Commison on Crime Prevention & Criminal justice
Various issues were raised, including the serious issue of putting people behind bars not because of their actions, but because of who they are. In the opening remarks, Rachel Rossi describes the shared goal of equal justice under law for all. The law, if applied fairly and wisely, can serve as an instrument of justice. But for the poor, it can lead to a series of profound problems.
Representing the US Justice Departments Office for Access to Justice (ATJ), Rachel Rossi outlined the newly-released equity plan that intends to increase access to justice in five key areas, removing environmental barriers that limit access to justice.
Justice is layered and complicated, manifesting differently for groups of people. Rachel concluded her presentation with the words of Bryan Stevenson, social justice activist who said, “the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth but instead it is justice.”
Vagrancy Laws and criminalising poverty
Offences, such as breaking vagrancy laws, are criminalised, despite not being criminal in nature. These laws impact hawkers and informal traders, a solution for many people who can’t find employment.
Yet as Judge Makume says, “These laws are inconsistent with the right to dignity.”
Judge Makume is the Chairperson of Legal Aid South Africa, an organisation which strives to represent marginalised people in South Africa —- and they have their hands full.
According to the World Bank report, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. Judge Makume joined the discussion for the 31st Session of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, shedding light on how poverty in South Africa is largely impacted by strong racial, gender, age and spatial dimensions.
Many cities in South Africa have criminalised the marginalised and poor through poverty laws, with a lot of these marginalised communities being formed by immigrants from neighboring countries.
Vagrancy laws are often vague and overly broad, leading to arbitrary and discriminatory action. Ultimately, enforcement of vagrancy laws are done on the basis of economic status — and so the cycle of poverty continues.
Criminalisation by Status
The criminalisation of poverty is a striking example of criminalisation by status.
The United Nations Human Rights standards have been emphasising that the criminalisation of poverty is unacceptable, but as a community, we need to believe it to be true in order to lobby for change. So, why should we address the criminalisation of poverty and status?
Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, attended the discussion for the 31st Session of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. He suggests the following suggestions on why we should address the criminalisation of poverty by status.
- It feeds stereotypes about people in poverty. They are described as having chosen their position and seen as a threat to society and this is the symbolic message that the law sends.
- All too often, criminalising life-sustaining activities is a pretext for not addressing the structural causes of poverty.
- It propels the vicious cycle between poverty and criminalisation. Poverty leads people to be criminalised because they can not afford to pay fines or taxes, and they can’t live decently. As a result, they are further marginalised and pushed into poverty.
Assessing your current assumptions is the first step toward change.