While U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pursues new sentencing guidelines to reduce prison time, the city of Boulder, Colo., is taking a different approach.
Boulder voted Tuesday night to reinstate the possibility of jail time for such minor infractions as smoking in public parks or stepping into the street to accept a handout from a motorist.
Critics of the measure, which the city council passed unanimously, say the council is criminalizing homelessness, since it’s primarily aimed at a group of vagrants who hang out on the lawns of public buildings and nearby public parks.
But council members said the stricter penalties are aimed at the groups’ petty criminal activities. Drinking, smoking and panhandling on street corners are driving away law-abiding citizens, the city attorney argued.
“What we have seen is that our public spaces are not welcome to people who are not engaged in criminal activity in some way,” Tom Carr is quoted as saying by the Daily Camera. “If you don’t control your public spaces, if you let them be taken over by criminal activity, you are banishing law-abiding people.”
The new law makes it possible for those breaking municipal ordinances — minor infractions like drinking from an open container or peeing in a bush — to be sentenced to jail, even on the first offense. The council approved several municipal laws for the harsher penalties and added two more — pedestrians inferring with traffic and “unlawful conduct.”
The former now makes it a jailable offense to step into the street to accept handouts from motorists. The Camera reported that several people spoke out in protest of the laws at Tuesday’s meeting, calling them discriminatory toward homeless people.
“These people are trying to live,” local resident Mary Eisenhower is quoted as saying. “They are trying to survive. You want to put them in jail for a measly offense like flying a sign and stepping into traffic to get a dollar. I am just totally flabbergasted that my city council would try to punish someone for being homeless.”
City Councilman Macon Cowles said the criticism made many members “squirm,” but in the end, the council voted unanimously to adopt the stricter penalties.
While debating this issue earlier, Cowles had suggested banishing offenders from the city limits for an amount of time equal to what they would serve in jail.
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