Justice Department says that punishing homeless for sleeping outside is 'cruel and unusual'

A homeless man in California
(Image credit: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A small legal case in Boise, Idaho, could have big implications in cities across the country: Last week, the Department of Justice determined that Boise's laws against sleeping or camping in public places were unconstitutional, The Washington Post reports. From the DOJ's filing:

When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. 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 Washington Post]

Prosecuting public sleeping, then, the Justice Department argues, constitutes a "cruel and unusual punishment," and is in violation of the 8th amendment.

"Homelessness never left town because somebody gave it a ticket," Eric Tars, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told The Washington Post. "The only way to end homelessness is to make sure everybody has access to affordable, decent housing."

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Thirty-four percent of 187 cities surveyed by NLCHP last year had laws banning camping in public, while 43 percent prohibited sleeping in vehicles and 53 percent prevented people from sitting or lying down in particular public spaces. On an average night, there are 153,000 unsheltered homeless in the United States.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.