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Homelessness Case May Impact Prisoner Rights

When the Supreme Court hears the case of Grants Pass v. Johnson later this month, the justices will consider how far cities can go in policing homeless people. But just as the court swept away a half-century of precedent by overturning Roe v. Wade, the justices could use this case about homelessness to upend how we interpret four key words in the Bill of Rights — “cruel and unusual punishments.” Their decision could have ramifications across a wide swath of the criminal justice system, including prison conditions and the death penalty, the Marshall Project reports. The case is about whether the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment when it arrests, fines and even jails people without homes for sleeping outside. A lower federal court recently ruled that punishing people for doing something they cannot help is cruel and unusual punishment. “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.

Grants Pass appealed the ruling up to the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments on April 22, positing that the courts have no business telling cities what behavior they can regulate. The Eighth Amendment, they say, applies to punishments levied after a crime, not laws that establish what is a crime in the first place, and besides, fines and jail time are hardly cruel or unusual. The court could choose a very narrow path in Grants Pass, ruling only on the city’s public camping ban and avoiding the broader issues here. It could still be an important ruling, given how many places across the United States are struggling with how to manage rising populations of unhoused people. Cities from San Francisco to Phoenix and beyond have raised controversy by clearing encampments and relying on law enforcement to manage homelessness, even as rents soar and shelter beds are limited. But if the court issues a more sweeping ruling and abandons the evolving standards yardstick in Grants Pass, “that would eviscerate much protection for incarcerated people,” said Sharon Dolovich, a UCLA law professor who studies prison law and policy.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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