Safe Streets Act – Safe for Who?

The 2004 Safe Streets Act of British Columbia was originally widely believed to have been enacted as a response to “aggressive panhandling” in the city of Vancouver. Under this legislation, simply asking people for money became an offence for which one could be arrested. The Act calls the action of asking for money as “soliciting” and defines it as the “means to communicate, in person, using spoken, written or printed word, a gesture or another means, for the purpose of receiving money or another thing of value, regardless of whether consideration is offered or provided in return” (SBC 2004, C. 75). The Act further goes on to state that a person has committed an offence if they do any of the following, among others:

  • Solicits a person who is using, or waiting to use, a pay telephone or a public toilet facility;
  • Solicits a person who is in, on or disembarking from a passenger vehicle;
  • Solicits a person who is in the process of getting in, out of, on or off of a vehicle or who is in a parking lot (SBC 2004, C. 75).

Basically, a person who is simply asking you for your spare change (which you may willingly give to them) has now committed an offence under the law. The law does not take into account whether the individual is violent, threatening, or aggressive in any manner; the simple act of asking a question is now illegal.

Although there has been some considerable controversy regarding this law, it still remains as a means of enforcement. It can even be seen as a law that criminalizes the poor. In essence, they are the only ones that have any real motivation to ask for money from complete strangers. This motivation stems from a desperate and last resort means for survival. With this law in effect, one may even argue that the poor must resort to even more drastic measures to obtain money to sustain their existence. The reasonable alternative to harmlessly asking people for spare money is to then turn to harmful means of obtaining it, whether through stealing from property or persons.

According to Fuller, law can be used for two purposes:

  1. As a coercive instrument of social control;
  2. As a means to facilitate human interaction (Pavlich 2011, P. 30)

As an instrument of social control, the Safe Streets Act definitely controls the poor’s behaviours. It also intimidates those less fortunate by subjecting them to arrest by the state if they choose to contravene this law that contradicts their plight for basic survival.

As a means to facilitate human interaction, the Act certainly regulates the interaction between the lowest class of society with the rest  of the classes in the sense that it widens the social gap, alienates, and now criminalizes those in society who cannot fend for themselves.

The Safe Streets Act appears to be a quick fix to alleviate society’s issues of the poor instead of addressing the underlying the roots of why they are poor in the first place and attempt to assist them. By criminalizing their actions, a slippery slope starts to occur where the poor must not only live in fear of the realities of being homeless, but also in fear or the rest of society regarding them as common deviants.

References:

Government of British Columbia. “Safe Streets Act.” Safe Streets Act. Queen’s Printer, 26 Oct. 2004. Web. 22 Sept. 2012. <http://www.bclaws.ca/EPLibraries/bclaws_new/document/ID/freeside/00_04075_01&gt;.

Pavlich, George. “Chapter 2.” Law & Society Redefined. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2011. 27-39. Print.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Safe Streets Act – Safe for Who?

  1. Good topic. This is a fascinating – and disturbing – area of law, and of criminology in general. At issue is the role of law in the criminalization of poverty – often explained as an example of reactionary policy aimed at pacifying and purging the urban landscape of visible indicators of the gross inequalities produced by neoliberalism.

    I am not sure that you have fully explored the ways that Fuller’s theory of the internal morality of law as craft could be applied to this issue. You have noted that the Act reflects the coercive aspect of law, and that it regulates (and likely inhibits) forms of human interaction. How could we use Fuller to assess (or critique) the morality of this law, though? Does the Act violate any of the principles that contribute to law’s internal morality? Do you see parallels between this law and the allegory of King Rex used by Fuller?

    If this is an area of interest for you (perhaps as an essay topic), I would advise looking into the history of the Ontario Safe Streets Act and the campaign against ‘squeegee kids’ during the late 1990s.

    http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_99s08_e.htm

    Gaetan Heroux offers a thoughtful critique of this regime in his chapter “War on the Poor: Urban Poverty, Target Policing and Social Control”, in the 2011 edited volume Anti-Security (Neocleous and Rigakos, eds). http://redquillbooks.com/Anti-security.html .