Vagrancy laws are the last of slavery laws that need abolishing

Last year, Governor John Bel Edwards, working with the Legislative Black Caucus and others passed a set of laws that began the reformation of the state’s criminal justice system. It was a giant step, but there is so much more to go.

The package of reforms was called the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” and consisted of a long laundry list of tweaks to Louisiana’s criminal codes and procedures. Among them were changes that stopped the state from suspending driver’s licenses if a person is unable to pay a fine 2) Provided for alternative means for persons to report to probation officers rather than in person, 3) Reduced certain expungement fees 4) Made changes in habitual offender laws, and many others.

The public also passed a constituitional amendment eliminating one of two of the old slavery era laws: Felony convictions now require a unanimous jury verdict instead of 10/12 as in the past.

One slavery era law remains: Vagrancy. Officially it is RS 14:107. It is one of the laws on the books that were passed just after the passage of the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. However, the 13th amendment allows states to re-enslave a person if he is convicted of a crime. Immediately after the amendment’s adoption, a long list of ordinary activities were categorized as crimes and the former slaves were arrested and convicted with non-unanimous juries and sentenced to “hard labor” or slavery.

One of the laws they passed is Vagrancy. Blacks who minded their own business, but refused to work or accept job offers were arrested and jailed for the crime of “vagrancy.” State prisoners were sent to Angola Prison and then prisoners were contracted out to plantation owners who had cheap quasi slave labor.

Vagrancy laws still exist today and have been expanded to included a grab bag of alleged offenses.  Louisiana is one of the few states that still allows for the arrest of vagrants. Historically, vagrancy laws criminalized someone who was without visible means of support. Basically, vagrancy laws make it a crime to be homeless, jobless, or otherwise considered undesirable.

Vagrancy laws are used to arrest, prosecute, and harass homeless and poor people. In Louisiana, the targets are mostly blacks and Hispanics.

We call upon Senator Katrina Jackson, Rep. Fred Jones, and Rep. Pat Moore, who represent poor in Northeast Louisiana to seriously consider an initiative to repeal or modify the vagrancy laws so that they specifically find a person of a crime.

For example, the vagrancy law defines a person who is a habitual drunk as a criminal, even if he has not become a nuisance, disturbed the peace or caused other problem.

A person who associates with a prostitute is called a vagrant, “association” is the crime not solicitation or promotion of prostitution.

A person who receives support from a retired senior citizen or someone who receives welfare, is a vagrant.

A person who walks the street at night without a “lawful” reason to do so, is a vagrant.

A person who is found near a structure, vessel, movable or private grounds without being able to account for themselves, is a vagrant.

A prostitute is a vagrant.

A person who gambles or maintains himself by gambling is a vagrant.

A person who begs is a vagrant unless he is begging for a church, or approved charitable organization.

A person who lives in a house of “ill fame” is a vagrant. Living in the house is the crime.

The Vagrancy laws have been used to ensnare a variety of poor people since slavery days. In the 60’s they were used to arrest Civil Rights protestors exercising free speech.

Ironically, there are already laws on the books regarding some the offenses detailed in the vagrancy law. For example, there are laws against soliciting for prostitution, but the vagrancy law makes it a crime to “be” a prostitute, be a friend to a prostitute or live in the same house with a prostitute.
Should it be a crime to receive help from a senior citizen or a person who is on welfare?

The vagrancy laws is so broad and vague that a large population is vulnerable to their abuse.

Even today, there is a $200 fine and six months prison sentence associated with a conviction of any of the above “offenses.”

Prosecutors will quickly claim that the law is seldom enforced, but it is a tool in their arsenal of laws that help keep the public safe.

The problem with Louisiana’s vagrancy law is, that is what lawyers call a “status” crime. It makes homelessness, poverty, a domicile, or a social relationship a crime.

Louisiana’s law needs to be repealed because the U.S. Constitution says the government cannot impose punishment that is cruel and unusual. Status crimes violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because the defendant is punished for unfortunate circumstances beyond his or her control.

To become a criminal because you associate with a friend who is a prostitute is unconstitutional.

To be arrested as a vagrant because you are habitually drunk is unconstitutional unless your drunkenness disturbs the peace or becomes a public nuisance.

To peaceably walk the street in the middle of the night without disturbance, where no crime is committed should not make a person a criminal.

Initially, the vagrancy law was a catch-all used against former slaves. It’s used today to persecute poor blacks and Hispanics for a variety of reasons.

The people that are mostly affected by these laws are the poor who may not have the means to mount a protest against them.