"As the head of our local police department, I have many mixed emotions around the decision of the Supreme Court in this opinion."

Mayoral Musings: The Impact of 'Grants Pass v. Johnson'

A homeless encampment is pictured June 9, 2023, just off the Schuylkill River Trail in Norristown. Credit: MediaNews Group

  • Mayoral Musings

As many are aware, Lansdale, and many other municipalities across the country, have been waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of laws related to living and sleeping in public parks. 

After months of debate and discussion, last week, the Supreme Court announced their decision in the "Grants Pass v. Johnson" where justices were asked to determine if fining and/or removing unhoused people was considered cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

In the court’s majority opinion (six justices), they ruled that such laws do not violate the Eighth Amendment because the intent of the Eighth is only applicable to punishments imposed after a criminal conviction and does not pertain to criminalized behaviors, in this case, violating park camping rules.

The dissenting opinion from the minority justices (three justices) argues that the majority opinion does not do enough to distinguish between when a law is punishing a person’s status or when it is punishing a person’s conduct. It has, historically, been ruled that punishing a person for their status is not constitutional under the ruling in "Robinson v. California" where the court ruled that laws criminalizing drug-addiction (a status) are unconstitutional.

As the head of our local police department, I have many mixed emotions around the decision of the Supreme Court in this opinion.

On the one hand, I agree that there are clear and appropriate times to remove people from public property, including and especially, when their safety, health, and well-being are at risk. A perfect example of this is when Code Blue or Code Red (severe cold/severe heat) events occur. To ensure the safety of people living in the parks and in the elements, we ask them to leave and help them seek assistance at local shelters. We do so with the understanding that we are helping to, potentially, save their lives and it is not with any ill intent. Another is when it has become clear that a person is littering and/or destroying public property. Their status as unhoused aside, it is not appropriate for anyone to be littering or damaging our public property which is there for everyone to enjoy.

However, I find it undeniable that being unhoused is a status and that being unhoused should not be criminalized. According to some studies the average working American with less than $400 in their savings account is only 118 days away from, potentially, becoming unhoused. Even someone who has equity in their home is only around 200 days away from the same fate. That could be anyone who is struggling to make ends meet for themselves or their family and it feels wrong to suggest that someone who is finding refuge in a park for a period and is committing no other acts that are illegal is, somehow, acting in a criminal or punishable way. They are simply attempting to live.

The truth of the matter is that society, as a whole, needs to do better.

Leaving someone with the choice of either living in a tent in a park or being forced to wander the streets aimlessly is no choice at all. While I have no doubt that many people are unhoused for reasons within their control, a great many more are unhoused due to circumstances well beyond their control. It is time for us, as a society, to stop failing one another and build a stronger social safety net that allows for dignity in rebuilding one’s life.

For Lansdale, this decision by the Supreme Court does afford us the ability to remove people from our parks when warranted, and there will be times where that is appropriate, but more importantly we will also be continuing to proactively connect and work with people in our unhoused community through our Mental Health Co-Responder program where we might be able to get individuals the help they need for long-term success. That is, in my estimation, not just the right path forward, but the one that acknowledges humanity and aims to keep us all moving forward together.

(Mayoral Musings is a weekly op-ed column submitted to North Penn Now, courtesy of Lansdale Borough Mayor Garry Herbert. The views expressed are his own and are not representative of North Penn Now or Lansdale Borough.)

Thursday, July 25, 2024




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