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Sleeping is not a crime

Cities in the West are now on notice: Provide shelter for the homeless or stop arresting them for sleeping in public places. That has been an issue in Ashland, and local agencies are working to increase available shelter, especially in the winter months.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Boise, Idaho, violated the constitutional rights of homeless people when it prosecuted them for breaking a city ordinance against sleeping in public spaces.

The ruling should not have come as a surprise. The 9th Circuit already had held that “a city that does not provide adequate shelter for the destitute cannot constitutionally enforce against them a law prohibiting sitting, lying or sleeping in public places.” But that case was settled out of court, so the ruling did not establish a precedent.

Tuesday’s ruling does. A three-judge panel of the court said Boise’s sleeping ban violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Ashland has a history of citing people for illegal camping, handing out 129 tickets in 2015, 145 in 2016 and more than 300 through October 2017.

Even before Tuesday’s ruling, cities have focused on unwelcome behavior by excluding specific individuals from downtown areas after multiple citations. Those measures have limited usefulness because they merely cause homeless people to move from one place to another.

City officials already knew they needed to find a better way to address homelessness than by making it a crime. Tuesday’s court ruling gives that the force of law.

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