vagrancy, in law, term applied to the offense of persons who are without visible means of support or domicile while able to work. State laws and municipal ordinances punishing vagrancy often also cover loitering, associating with reputed criminals, prostitution, and drunkenness. The punishment is usually a fine or several months in jail. Instead of arresting vagrants, local officials often attempt to induce them to move on. Beginning in the 1960s vagrancy laws came under constitutional attack. The vague statutory language was often held to be too broad, in violation of the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: individuals were not adequately warned of what conduct was forbidden and police had too much discretion in deciding whether to make an arrest. It was ruled that enforcement of the laws often violated the protections of the First Amendment, especially when police used them against political demonstrators and unpopular groups. U.S. vagrancy laws generally punish the status of being a vagrant and not some overt act. This approach derives from English laws of the 16th cent. that generally failed to distinguish between the indigent and the criminal and that set harsh punishments, including whipping and transportation to the colonies. England gradually modified its poor laws and today punishes only overt acts dangerous to the community. Vagrants are often tolerated as scavengers, and in certain East Asian countries they are ascribed semireligious qualities, revered, but also feared, for their spiritual powers. Vagrants are basically a product of unemployment and their numbers swell during depressions.
See C. J. Ribton-Turner, The History of Vagrants and Vagrancy (1887, repr. 1972).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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