Rough Sleeping, Rough Justice

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Last year Sussex Police arrested more than 60 people in Brighton for begging under a 192-year-old law originally intended to cut the number of “incorrigible rogues and vagabonds”, most of whom were ex-soldiers, discharged after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Very few people are ever given prison sentences for vagrancy, but fines are often handed out increasing poverty amongst some of the most impoverished people in society and preventing them from ever saving enough to remove themselves from the streets.

The law fails to distinguish, in any meaningful sense, between those who aggressively harass passers by for money and those who simply sit on the ground and accept money when it is offered. What is worse, the cost of arresting these people, charging them, and putting them through the courts, is never mitigated by the pennies which can be retrieved from them when the fines are imposed. They are left in debt, the public purse is depleted, and the problem of rising rates of homelessness is never actually addressed.

If the money spent on prosecuting each homeless person for vagrancy was simply given to that person instead, they would be able to afford to get themselves off the streets and homelessness might actually decrease. The current approach just makes the problem worse.

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9 thoughts on “Rough Sleeping, Rough Justice

  1. I had been tempted to make a comment, but then I realised that it’s a classic example of surrealistic humour…
    Er… you are joking, right?

    • The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 was a law in England and Wales which prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium, or other spiritualist while attempting to deceive and to make money from the deception (other than solely for the purpose of entertainment). It repealed the Witchcraft Act 1735, and it was in turn repealed on 26 May 2008[1] by new Consumer Protection Regulations following an EU directive targeting unfair sales and marketing practices.[2]

      There were five prosecutions under this Act between 1980 and 1995, all resulting in conviction.[3] (Wiki)

  2. Hmm, I not too sure what he means… though I will assume that you were not joking. Nonetheless, your answer being a little ambiguous, I will proceed with extreme caution, particularly as we are so near to April Fool’s Day.

    You may be interested to learn that there was an article on the same subject in the Sunday Times a couple of days earlier, written from exactly the opposite angle (beggars earning vast sums of money by pretending to be homeless, luxury cars, etc.), though unlike yourself, the writer was careful not to make any recommendations.

    The point at which you careered off the road and went into the realms of the surreal was the last paragraph, though I must confess that I did rather enjoy the image of the old Bill in the role of the good fairy, helmets bedecked with flowers, dancing around the streets of Brighton, dispensing pennies to the poor – because that is all it would be: pennies. If you really did mean to be serious, you should have done your sums. Sixty beggars up before the beak is about one a week, and I would assume that almost all the costs, from the magistrate high on his bench down to the lowly toilet cleaner and the police, would be fixed overheads. The begging cases being guilty pleas (almost a certainty), putting one more vagrant through the mill would cost very little extra, just a bit of stationery, the odd phone call and maybe a bit of diesel – and I can’t imagine any of the police involved being paid overtime for the job.

    As to the purpose of the charade, it might be worth bearing in mind that large seaside towns will always attract the homeless: given a choice between sleeping under Brighton pier or Wigan pier, no contest. Thus, from the point of view of the police it could prove be an extremely cost effective way of persuading those alleged to be annoying the local citizenry to get right out of town – or at least the ones who do not live in large houses, drive an Audi and read the Sunday Times – as the logical option for any itinerant landed with a fine would be to up stakes and move on.

    George Orwell made a very good case against the absurd British begging laws over eighty years ago in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, where he also made a plea for the right of people to be allowed to sleep rough. These days the section of the 1824 act that makes “sleeping in the open air” an offence is no longer enforced, meaning that dossers may now doze in peace, safe in the knowledge that their beauty sleep will not be disturbed by the local plod. I think it’s called progress.

    • I saw the piece in the Times you were referring to and agree that the author managed to resist making recommendations. But then the purpose of that article was to report a story in a way that would appeal to the Times readership and further consolidate the outlooks espoused by the Times, maintaining that readership. On the other hand, the purpose of my blog posts are (usually) to share a singular point of view which may or may not appeal to my readers, but which will hopefully encourage comment or debate. After reading your comment I’d say that this particular post succeeded in that.
      As to your countering of my final paragraph, I disagree. I believe these prosecutions involve other financial costs which are wholly avoidable. However my last paragraph was suggesting that if you gave the equivalent of those costs to those that would be prosecuted instead of prosecuting them, therefor also allowing them to keep the little money they have managed to gather rather than taking it from them in fines, then these (as you point out, few) individuals would be able to get themselves off the streets.
      I too like the image of the police handing money out to the poor in the way you describe, but of course I was not suggesting this either. Rather I would like to see guidance given to the police for them to direct the homeless to nearby hostels and charities and for the government to direct the saved costs to those charities to enable them to help the homeless even more than they already do. Surreal maybe, controversial definitely, idealistic hopefully.

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