The Penalisation of People Living in Poverty
The PILCH Homeless Persons' Legal Clinic is working with the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP) on an international project entitled The Penalisation of People Living in Poverty.
The Project will identify and combat the increasing tendency to penalise people living in extreme poverty around the world through criminal and non-criminal measures. The four key themes to be explored are:
- penalising poverty through criminal and non-criminal measures
- governance of urban spaces and urban planning
- public health
- governance and policing of welfare
The ICHRP hopes to contribute to deepening the knowledge of developments in this area as well as provide information and analysis to the upcoming report 'The Criminalisation of People Living in Poverty' to be presented to the UN General Assembly by the UN Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty later in 2011.
In March 2011, HPLC Manager/Principal Lawyer James Farrell attended a research workshop in Geneva hosted by the ICHRP.
Penalising poverty through criminal and non-criminal measures
James Farrell (HPLC) and Karen Cunningham from the US National Law Centre for Homelessness and Poverty discussed the impact of laws, regulations, or practices that penalize or criminalise the use of public spaces or other behaviours and actions of people who are homeless, lack adequate housing or live and work on the streets/public spaces. James cited this example of the use of police 'move on powers' in Australia, and noted the importance of providing forums for affected people to tell their own stories.
Kersty McCourt from the Open Society Justice Institute discussed the impacts of pre-trial detention across the world, and how detention before the finalisation of any outstanding legal issue can perpetuate poverty across communities.
Miguel La Rota from Colombia's De Justicia discussed the (disproportionate) impact of criminal justice practices such as the powers of arrest, detention, determination of bail, plea-bargaining etc. on people living in poverty, and difficulties in accurately measuring the disproportionate (and possibly discriminatory) use of police powers against people who are poor.
Governance of urban spaces and urban planning
Laws, regulations and practices with respect to zoning, urban beautification and redevelopment have considerable impacts on the redevelopment of land occupied by poor people. Tuna Kayucu from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul suggested that alternative laws and recognition of legal and human rights to property was needed.
The Canadian Social Rights Advocacy Centre's Bruce Porter discussed the effect of stereotypes of homelessness, poverty and disadvantage. He argued that measures of social control and criminalisation based on these stereotypes attempt to 'correct', control and penalise the poor, rather than attempting to address structural causes of poverty.
Odindo Opiata of Kenya's Hakijamii cited the example of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in December 2010 after city officials were preventing him from selling goods in the street near his home in Tunisia. Odindo suggested that Mohamed's tragic protest could be classed as an 'inevitable consecquence' of the 'global urban tragedy where exclusion of the poor and other marginalised groups has become official policy and practice'.
Guillem Fernandez is an Associate at Spain's Prohabitatge and also a member of FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless. He argued that the increasing regulation of public and quasi-public space (such as shopping centres) impacts on people who are homeless or poor, and that such measures fail to recognise allow full participation in economic, cultural and social life.
As a former UN Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari from HLRN-Habitat International Coalition has seen the effect of neo-liberal economic policies on access to housing across the world, including his native India. Miloon noted that forced evictions exclusively impact on people who are poor and that, without secure or adequate housing, cycles of disadvantage will continue.
Participants at the 'Penalising Poverty' workshop [Geneva, March 2011]
"The fact that addiction is bound up with the hard core of the worst problems confronting us socially makes it discouraging at the outset to talk about 'solving' it. 'Solving' it really means solving poverty and broken homes, racial discrimination and inadequate education, slums and unemployment...."
Sen Robert F Kennedy, 1965
Eve Stotland from the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Centre (New York, USA) discussed the experiences of poor people suffering from mental illness. Eve's presentation focussed on the effects of the criminal justice system on people with mental illnesses, and revealed some horrific statistics and stories about solitary confinement in New York's prisons.
In Argentina, the Collective for Diversity is assisting marginalised women that are prosecuted and imprisoned for terminating pregnancies. Demian Zayat argued that abortion should not be a crime, and a more constructive and human rights compliant approach would recognise abortion as a public health issue and allow appropriate medical intervention.
Damon Barrett from the International Harm Reduction Association discussed the failures of a criminalisation-based response to drug regulation, citing Robert F Kennedy. Damon concluded that the concept of criminalisation may be viewed (broadly) in two ways: the criminnalisation of behaviours, and the criminalisation of markets. Both overlap, but may have distinct impacts on poorer or marginalised communities and populations (including those unconnected to drug use or the drug trade).
Helena Nygren-Krug from the World Health Organisation discussed the fact that many people in the world are denied access to adequate standards of health care, particularly for tropical diseases that have been virtually eliminated in the 'global north' but continue to affect people living in poverty across the world.
Governance and policing of welfare
Tamara Walsh (University of Queensland, Australia), Wendy Chan (Simon Fraser University, Canada) and Janet Love (Legal Resources Centre, South Africa) discussed developments in the governance and administration of welfare measures and institutions that disproportionately affect people in poverty, especially their liberty, dignity and privacy. Drawing on her recent research, Tamara argues that 'welfare fraud' cases prosecuted in lower courts are committed in a general context of extreme disadvantage, misunderstanding and administrative error. Wendy and Janet both discussed the effect of controls and disciplinary measures embedded within welfare regimes in means-testing, conditionalities and construction.
Indian legal researcher Usha Ramanathan discussed the use of policing and thick surveillance, including use of biometrics, collection and sharing of personal profiles and information across institutions including welfare agencies. Like in the Australian context, the Indian community is outraged by the centralisation and management of such personal information, although other representatives' reactions showed the importance of considering cultural context in any discussion of rights limitations.
As well as informing the UN Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty's report into 'The Criminalisation of People Living in Poverty', the ICHRP will disseminate the Project findings, and assist in follow-up activities related to the Project.
At the March Workshop, participants agreed to provide further information and analysis for the purposes of teh ICHRP project but, more importantly, to continue to work together as a global network to recognise the impact of poverty as a breach of human rights, and to work together to improve the lived experience of people living in poverty.
More information is available on the ICHRP website.