The Supreme Court Just Criminalized Homelessness - Alliance for Justice

The Supreme Court Just Criminalized Homelessness

Press Release


Criminal Justice

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Zack Ford

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 28, 2024 – Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, agreeing to uphold Grants Pass’s law that criminalizes sleeping outside and thereby forces all unhoused people to leave the city or face fines and jail time. The ruling suggests a disturbing return to the poorhouses that existed into the early 20th Century that — quite unsuccessfully — tried to solve poverty by punishing it.

The 6–3 partisan ruling concludes that criminalizing sleeping on the street does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment. It does so by declining to identify homelessness as a status of people whose circumstances would only be exacerbated by facing fines or jail time for having nowhere else to go.

Justice Sotomayor counters in her dissent on behalf of the liberal justices by pointing out that “sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime,” and “for some people, sleeping outside is their only option.” Punishing people just for being homeless, she argues, is “unconscionable and unconstitutional,” and policies like Grants Pass’s leave them “with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.” Their rights deserve to be safeguarded “even when, and perhaps especially when, doing so is uncomfortable or unpopular.”

Alliance for Justice Vice President of Strategy Keith Thirion issued the following statement:

“There can be nothing crueler than punishing people for their own misfortunes. Today’s Supreme Court ruling harkens back to the Lochner era, when poverty was stigmatized in hopes it could just be shamed away. Many options exist to help unhoused people, but they all involve actually helping them, not simply making their situation worse by racking up fines and jail time. Where is our humanity? When people are in need, forcing them out to make them some other city’s problem is as selfish as it gets. We should be ashamed of this Court and their willingness to protect the wealthy and powerful and clearly no one else.”