Risa Golubuff appears on American Forum

New Law School dean discusses vagrancy laws

nsgoluboffcourtesyuva

Goluboff's book focuses on the history of vagrancy laws, or laws which criminalize homelessness and joblessness — a topic Executive Producer of American Forum Doug Blackmon said is particularly interesting to the Miller Center.

The Miller Center hosted Risa Goluboff, author of “Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s” and incoming dean of the Law School, on American Forum Wednesday.

Goluboff's book focuses on the history of vagrancy laws, or laws which criminalize homelessness and joblessness — a topic Executive Producer of American Forum Doug Blackmon said is particularly interesting to the Miller Center.

"This is one of those wonderful examples of where we’re really interested on American Forum and here at the Miller Center," Blackmon said. "Over the last couple years with the Black Lives Matter [movement] and all these incidents that raise questions about police enforcement, and what are the limits of what they can do. That’s something we’re really interested in."

Goluboff was the clear choice to speak on this topic for American Forum, Blackmon said, as she is one of the leading scholars on the lingering effects of vagrancy laws on American society.

"[Goluboff] is one of the great minds at the University of Virginia and is also one of the great minds on understanding how we got into this fix," Blackmon said. "When we saw that her book was coming out months ago, we said, okay, this fits right into that type of discussion we’ve been having so let’s definitely get her on American Forum.’”

Vagrancy laws were created in the 16th century and originally intended to combat unemployment, but they have taken a darker turn since the 20th century, Goluboff said.

"Vagrancy laws were intended to make sure that everyone who could work would work, so they made it a crime to be poor and idle,” Goluboff said. “Over time they varied and they came to criminalize lots of other kinds of people."

Goluboff said the laws have “come to be used against racial minorities, religious groups, gay men and lesbians.”

"Anybody who seems at all out of place in any way becomes a target of vagrancy laws,” she said.

Goluboff said law enforcement officers have used these laws when they make arrests for two reasons.

"One, they criminalize being a specific type of person, being dissolute, or immoral or idle — really vague concepts that give the police lots of flexibility," Goluboff said. "Second, they’re really vague. What does it mean to be immoral? What does it mean to be dissolute? What does it mean to wander about with no apparent purpose?”

Goluboff said the vague natures of the law can lead to abuse.

Vagrancy laws have a strange crossover between crime control and social control, and they are enforced particularly when someone looks or seems different from mainstream culture, Goluboff said.

"The real divide is in thinking about what the police do as between crime control and social control," she said. "I think it’s the case that difference often seems dangerous … for a long time any kind of difference from the mainstream was dangerous."

Goluboff’s appearance on American Forum will air nationally on PBS stations March 16.

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