In some countries the poor or those disadvantaged are targeted by the law, whether directly or indirectly.
This takes the form of imprisoning those who are unable to pay fines or taxes and criminalising acts such as small-scale selling without a licence or sleeping on the street. In some countries, it is still possible to be arrested for being an ‘idle and disorderly person’ – a common offence in Africa.
Law enforcement officers also frequently use poverty, homelessness or disadvantage as an indicator of criminality. There are also some ‘status offences’ that specifically target women, such as witchcraft or ‘running away’. Brewing alcohol without a licence to sell as an income-generating activity has resulted in women’s imprisonment in Kenya.
There are many status offences’ that are not criminal offences for adults, including truancy, disobedience and drinking alcohol, but exist to target children deemed ‘disobedient’. The UN has found that children from poor, socially excluded communities are more frequently arrested and detained.
There is a link between poverty, drug offences and imprisonment. Many people who use drugs belong to vulnerable, poor and socially excluded groups, and are easier targets for law enforcement. Drug offences too often target low-level traffickers and users with laws fixated on criminalisation rather than public health and harm reduction approaches, with mass imprisonment as a consequence.