Social Control And Criminalisation Of Australias Homeless Criminology Essay

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Over the past two decades there has been an increase in the enforcement of laws that aim to exclude and relocate marginalised populations from urban areas and social life. Homeless people have been particularly affected by these laws, because they criminalize many of the behaviours they engage in. These social control techniques are used by increasingly conservative governments that are reducing public spending and are highly influenced by neoliberal agendas. It can be seen that they are enforced for the bourgeoisie, who act collectively and pressure governments to enforce their values on minorities in society. This paper describes some of these laws and looks at how they function to systematically disadvantage the homeless. Also discussed are the ideologies that are attached to the homeless that assist in informing increasingly conservative public policy.

In Australia there are a range of laws that exclude marginalised populations from public spaces and social life. These laws are often influenced by neoliberal agendas and rest on the premise that they enhance security and discourage crime in urban areas. However, they often function as a social control technique to regulate and relocate homeless and other perceived deviants from areas that are primarily inhabited by the upper classes. In this paper, I will demonstrate how these laws target and systematically disadvantage Australia's homeless and how they reflect the expanding role of the state in social life.

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Many texts discuss the issue of defining homelessness and it is now widely accepted there are several different kinds. Here, I will be talking specifically about primary homelessness, also known as 'sleeping rough', where people sleep in cars, parks or other public spaces (Which Way Home? 2008: 18). While homelessness itself is not illegal in Australia, many acts committed by the homeless are, such as loitering, public drunkenness and begging. Therefore, many homeless people live in perpetual violation of one or several criminal laws (Morris and Hawkins 1970: 8) Criminalisation of the homeless often occurs because these people lack the private space, to engage in normal behaviors. Such 'crimes' do not generally hurt others or damage property; however there is a general assumption that removing the homeless from public spaces reduces crime and creates safer streets.

The enforcement of these laws is sometimes referred to as 'broken windows policing' and the premise is that suburbs that fail to fix broken windows or other forms of disorder, lack social control and are therefore inviting more serious forms of crime to the area (Morris and Hawkins 1970: 8). While the name suggests that this type of policing applies specifically to property, it also applies to people and behaviours that can be seen as deviant or unpleasant. These laws are legitimated by the claims that they discourage 'serious criminals' from a certain areas. However they also function as a social control technique that relocates marginal populations away from 'prime' urban spaces, which are primarily inhabited by the upper classes (Beckett and Herbert 2008: 8). This ensures a homogenised population where the bourgeoisie can be surrounded by 'like minded' people who embody the values of consumerist and capitalist culture. In a sense, these laws provide a sort of social insulation, that protect the ruling classes from perceived 'deviants' (ibid).

Loitering is a specific example of how these laws function. Under section 7(1)(f) of the Vagrancy Act 1966 (Vic), a person can be imprisoned for 2 years for loitering with 'intent to commit an indictable offence' (PILCH 2002: 25). However, in order to charge a person the Crown does not have to prove that the person was guilty of any other act that demonstrated that they were going to commit an offence (ibid). Effectively, there is a law that enables the criminalisation of an act which itself is not criminal: simply existing in urban space. This law impacts disproportionately on the homeless and is incompatible with fundamental human rights such as the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty; the right to freedom of movement and residence; and the right to freedom from discrimination (PILCH 2002: 26). It can be seen that its primary function is not to prevent harm to people or property, but rather to ensure that the privileged groups in society can inhabit urban space without the 'threatening' presence of homeless people.

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Begging in a public space is a further violation of the Vagrancy Act 1966 (Vic). Under (section 6(1)(d), a person can be imprisoned for up to 2 years for committing this offence (PILCH 2002: 11). The argument against begging is that it increases fear of crime and makes certain areas of the city 'no go zones'. This is turn is seen to have a detrimental effect on the tourism and local business (Fitzpatrick and Jones 2005: 397). Effectively, this law is enforce because privileged group who inhabit public space feel threatened by the very poor and associate them with crime. Fitzpatrick and Jones capture the social injustice of this law in their 2005 study of homeless in the UK. They state

Any policies which have a large negative impact on the lives of an acutely disadvantaged group cannot be justified by reference to a marginal gain from a less disadvantaged group (Fitzpatrick and Jones 2005: 398).

Criminalising these acts is an example of what Morris and Hawkins (1970) describe as the over reach of the criminal law. They argue that the prime function of the criminal law is to protect people and property. However our criminal justice system seems disproportionately concerned with enforcing laws that aim to regulate human behavior and impose morals upon the public (Morris and Hawkins 1970: 2). Certain acts such as public drunkenness are symbols that identify members of perceived 'unpleasant' subcultures whose values can be seen to be detrimental to society (Gusfield 1970: 4). While being drunk in a public place may not cause any harm, politicians may feel its presence is threatening to the moral fabric of society. Such laws do not simply criminalise vast numbers of the population; they also place unnecessary stress on the criminal justice system, which becomes clogged with cases of minor offences. This in turn has driven up the costs of policing due to the increased amounts spent on surveillance, prosecution and incarceration of people who have generally caused minimal harm (Jordan 1996: 205).

While these social control practices are seen as a mechanism to reduce crime by restricting the opportunities in which crime can occur, they also expand the number of behaviours that are subject to investigation, incarceration and arrest (Beckett and Herbert 2008: 6). Furthermore they promote an extension of state surveillance throughout public spaces and contribute to the expansion of modernist institutions of control (ibid). These techniques function as a means to construct insiders and outsiders and encourage social segregation in public spaces. While the comfortable classes inhabit attractive urban areas dedicated to the consumption, marginal populations such as the homeless are regulated to the fringes of the city.

The process of criminalising the homeless often leaves law enforcement officials to deal with related issues, such as issues such as mental illness and alcoholism. Alcoholism is an issue that is common among the homeless population and it is a condition that often intensifies as a result of being homeless. Charging homeless people for being drunk on the streets does not treat the problem, nor does it assist the police in 'cleaning up the streets'. It is often found is that homeless alcoholics use rehabilitation centres as shelter services, but have little intention of treating their addiction (Wilhite 1992: 190). This indicates that the provision of suitable housing is a prerequisite to treating alcoholism. Once suitably housed, alcoholics have an increased chance of using alcohol rehabilitation services effectively (ibid). However, as discussed further in the following paragraphs, suitable housing has become increasingly scarce, so the homeless are released from the justice system and back on to the street, where the cycle is then repeated.

Homelessness has also increased significantly among the mentally ill in recent decades. This has been attributed to discontinuity in mental health services where individuals are transferred from an institutional to community living (Conover et al. 1997: 256). This burden of care has shifted from mental hospitals to the community; however, development of housing and community services has not kept up with the demand (Greenblatt 1992: 49). The outcome here is that many of Australia's mentally ill have ended up are end up on the streets and are criminalized for behaviour's that are symptoms of their illness. Once again, nobody benefits from the existing system. The mentally ill are left untreated and criminalised and the criminal justice system becomes increasingly overloaded with cases that have harmed neither individuals nor property.

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A shortage of affordable housing has been identified as a major contributing factor to homelessness in Australia. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of families seeking assistance from homeless services in Australia increased by 30 per cent (Which Way Home 2008:12). The Howard government played a key role in creating this shortage by reducing its investment in public housing. It is estimated that between 1994 and 2004 government funding for the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (CSHA) fell by 54 per cent in real terms (Judd et al. 2005: 246). Instead of investing in public housing, which would assist the homeless and many low income earners, the government reduced their spending in this area. This could be seen as a strategy to create a budget surplus, which could then be distributed via tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

This is a reflection of the changing nature of the welfare state, where the government continues to cut spending for social services, and places increased importance on individual responsibility (Judd et al. 2005: 247). Under this new model, individuals are encouraged to invest in private insurances for protection, as opposed to relying on the state to act as a safety net for people who fall through the cracks. This system is clearly an unrealistic expectation for homeless people, who often lack the basic necessities such of food and shelter. Limited policy responses to homelessness can also be seen as an attempt to reduce expectations of what the state will provide for those who don't fit into society, thereby encouraging them to adhere to the values of the mainstream.

The reduced investment in services for the homeless that have been listed above may be strategies adopted in order to avoid a fiscal crisis. This is a term coined by Habermas (1976) and is derived from his work on crisis theories, which are inherent in advanced capitalist societies and influence government policy. Specifically, a fiscal crisis occurs when there is not enough input into the state via taxes to facilitate the spending on services that they provide, such as welfare, health and education (Habermas 1976: 7). To avoid raising taxes to fund more comprehensive social services, the government instead cuts back on public spending and places increased expectations on what services individuals should pay for. This overwhelmingly affects marginalised populations such as the homeless, who are unable to protect themselves with personal insurances.

In her Australian study, Carole Zufferey found that media representations of the homeless were strongly influenced by conservative agendas that emphasised individual responsibility (Zufferey 2008: 359). Media representations generally construct deserving and undeserving homeless and focus more on individualist causes of homelessness that reflect individual agency, as opposed to structural ones (Zufferey 2008: 359). As the media play a key role in shaping public understanding of social issues, these representations may influence public attitudes towards homelessness. Conversely, the media could be simply reflecting the existing opinions of the comfortable classes. Either way, there is a strong perception that the homeless are responsible for their situations.

This idea, that homelessness is a lifestyle choice, was demonstrated recently when Opposition leader Tony Abbott was asked whether he would continue with the Rudd Government's goal of halving homelessness by 2020 (The Road Home 2008: viii). In his response Abbott said no and quoted the bible, from the Gospel of Matthew; 'The poor will always be with us' in an effort to demonstrate that the government cannot assist those who choose to be homeless or refuse to take advantage of services that are available to them (Perusco 2010: 7). This demonstrates an attitude shared by many Australians, that homelessness is a form of self-exclusion and that these people are intentionally resisting the values of mainstream society.

Many Australians have such ideological constructions surrounding the homeless that say they are lazy, untrustworthy and potentially dangerous, and these constructions go on to inform public policy. The ruling classes in Australia are persistently pushing for increased regulation of the homeless and law enforcers feel pressure to respond to their requests. As the state is strongly dependant on capitalistic enterprise to provide revenue, it is in their interest to favour the upper classes and the economically powerful as they create much of this income via taxes (Giddens 1986: 78). This is an example of how economic power translates into social power and illustrates why the government's actions generally symbolise the position of the upper classes (Gusfield 1970: 11).

When there is class domination by the upper classes, its members can act collectively to ensure their interests are served (Jordan 1996: 212). This has the potential to affect democracy, because in order to avoid a legitimation crisis, the government must respond to their requests. A legitimation crisis is a further term from Habermas's crises theories and refers to when the state lacks public approval and society questions the ability of the government to govern the country effectively (Habermas 1976: 7). Therefore in order to avoid a crisis, it alters its policies so they can be viewed as legitimate by tax payers. This process becomes anti-democratic because it undermines the political rights of individuals that guarantee individual freedom and diversity (Jordan 1996: 212). Furthermore, it sustains class divisions by protecting the interests of the dominant class, which then allows them to govern society (Giddens 1986: 72). This concept was captured nicely by Karl Marx who referred to the state as being 'the executive committee of the bourgeoisie' (ibid). In Australia, this kind of action has mobilised profoundly coercive forces against minorities and perceived deviants, such as the homeless (Jordan 1996: 212).

In today's political climate of conservatism, it is important to look at the discourses that are at play, when policy is implemented for public issues (Giddens 1986 79). In 2008, two policy papers were created by the Australian government in response to Australia's high levels of homelessness. The first was 'Which Way Home: A New Approach to Homelessness' which aimed to examine a range of perspectives on homelessness in order to inform further policy (Which Way Home? 2008: 8). From this, a second paper was developed, entitled 'The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness' which outlined the governments strategies for the future. Throughout both of these texts, there is the heavy promotion of moving people into the paid labour market, so they can be independent members of society. In Which Way Home, it states

Stable long-term employment should be the ultimate goal for most . . . . With proper support, people can become more resilient and better able to manage their personal, financial and housing needs, and gain the confidence and skills they need to participate in mainstream economic and social life. (Which Way Home 2008: 14)

Throughout the proposed policies, there is often a common sense assumption that all citizens aspire to be competitive, independent, self responsible, hardworking and morally autonomous individuals (Zufferey 2008: 362). In Australia, there is an unspoken assumption that these are the qualities needed for citizenship. This is evident in that the overall aim of the policy is for individuals to be governed into a state where they can self-regulate their behavior without the need for direct intervention by the state, a type of control integral to neoliberal forms of government (Gilbert 2008: 109). While the aim of many of the proposed programs is to support clients by improving their independent living skills, they are still deeply embedded with assumptions about control, surveillance, containment, independence and self-determination (Greenhalgh 2007: 646).

It is important to question who benefits from these programs and whose interests are being served. Is it the homeless who will benefit from these policies, or are they implemented for the bourgeoisie, who feel threatened by the presence of 'deviants' who do not conform to their way of life? Neo liberalist discourse is pervasive throughout the proposed policies, which are littered with management orientated methods and techniques and 'user pays' ideologies (Anker 2008: 37). It can be seen that such methods are being implemented in the interest of aesthetics and productivity, as opposed to assisting people find long term accommodation and helping them acquire the tools that would allow them to participate in social life. There is a sense that these individuals are seen as objects of policy that should be moved into the labour market. If they have access to welfare services there is an expectation that they must contribute to society via employment and consumption.

Australia's homeless continue to be systematically disadvantaged by criminal law. Instead of looking for ways to reduce homelessness, the government is increasingly steering resources into new ways to regulate and criminalise this population which often undermines their basic human rights. In order to avoid a fiscal and legitimation crisis, the government have reduced public spending and personalised the issue of homelessness thereby placing the focus on individualised causes, rather than structural ones. This in turn has decreased our expectations of what will be provided for this population, because their situation is seen as a 'lifestyle choice'. It is apparent the privileged classes have a disproportionate influence over crime policy, and law enforcers are therefore criminalising the homeless making it harder for them to exist in the areas that these classes inhabit. These trends look only to intensify in the coming years as social control techniques increasingly characterise the modern state.