about petty offences
Across the world, criminal justice systems are inundated with cases involving people charged with outdated, colonial-era petty offences that pose little threat to public safety. Laws against loitering, being a ‘rogue or a vagabond’, or having no ‘ostensible means of assistance’, amongst others, are used to target the poor, minorities, and marginalized groups. Others discriminate against people with disabilities, giving broad powers to police to detain anyone perceived of being of ‘unsound mind’ or found ‘wandering at large’. While some of these laws actively penalize people based on society’s biases, others serve to fill gaps in places where there is a lack of social services. In these situations, the criminal justice system steps in, incarcerating people for non-criminal behaviour or for behaviours associated with poverty, substance use or disability.
What is a petty offence?
Petty offences are minor offences for which the punishment is prescribed by law to carry a warning, community service, a low value fine or short term of imprisonment, often for failure to pay the fine. Examples include, but are not limited to, certain nuisance-related offences; offences created through certain by-laws aimed at controlling public nuisances; and certain laws criminalising informal commercial activities, such as hawking and vending.
Who is hurt by the laws?
There is increasing evidence that mainly poor and marginalised people, such as the homeless, street children, sex workers, street vendors, ethnic minorities, refugees and persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities etc., are the most hurt by these laws. The overall impression is that petty laws are used to target people regarded as ‘undesirable’ and ‘unwanted’, not because they pose a threat to public safety, but rather because they are powerless and ‘do not belong’.
Another group being increasingly targeted by growing authoritarian States are activists and protestors. These laws give license to States to use security apparatus to unfairly arrest and detain protestors in a way to quell dissent.
How do we bring about change?
Challenging the legitimacy of these criminal laws is the starting point, but so much more needs to accompany law reform to protect the civil liberties and human rights for those targeted. Members of the campaign conduct research to provide an evidence base for law reform; pursue strategic litigation cases to repeal or reclassify these laws; raise the public awareness and advocate for criminal justice reform. Under the umbrella of the Campaign, members employ collective action and innovative strategies to lend weight and momentum to national-, regional- and global-level advocacy and reform.
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The Campaign to Decriminalise Poverty and Status is a coalition of organisations from across the world that advocate for the repeal of laws that target people based on poverty, status or for their activism.
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