Tanzania’s “Vagrancy Law” Crusade on Poor Citizens is Wrong 

To create a just and prosperous society, Tanzania must reevaluate its approach to vagrancy. Emulating countries that have abandoned such laws and embraced compassion and understanding is crucial.

Sections 176 and 177 of the Tanzania Penal Code criminalize “indecent behavior,” “soliciting for prostitution,” and “begging in public.” Other issues include gambling, attempting to obtain alms, and causing public disturbances. These laws also extend to being unemployed and able-bodied with no visible means of subsistence and engaging in personal frolic during work hours.

These laws lead to the conviction of vulnerable individuals, including the homeless and sex workers. Countries like the United Kingdom have abolished similar laws to promote a more inclusive society based on compassion and justice. Considering human rights, vagrancy laws, which are the legal regulations that historically criminalized homelessness and idleness, restrict individual freedoms, which is an ingredient for development.

Prosecuting individuals because of vagrancy comes at a massive cost to the nation. Keeping prisoners remains consistently expensive. The Tanzanian parliament should abolish sections 176 and 177 of the Penal Code Act.

Being idle and appearing disorderly imposes no direct costs on society. So, the government spending taxpayers’ money to convict accused individuals is not justifiable. Article 13(1) and Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasize the fundamental right of every individual to freedom of movement and residence within and beyond national borders.

 As a member state of the United Nations, Tanzania recognizes the right to freedom of movement within its borders, enshrined in Article 17 of its constitution. The outdated and unjust Vagrancy Act contradicts and undermines the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Tanzania’s constitution. Human rights are about upholding dignity, equality, and freedom. Tanzanian laws should never contradict human rights.

In the economics of crime, three fundamental concepts are at play: the cost imposed on society by criminal acts, the benefit to the criminal for committing the act, and the cost of maintaining the expected punishment. Applying this economic lens to the conviction and imprisonment of accused individuals reveals significant costs and raises ethical concerns that warrant reconsideration.

By criminalizing homelessness and idleness, the law effectively violates the right to free movement and, in turn, perpetuates poverty as the victims of this law are the poor. The government uses financial resources to arrest individuals, cover court costs, and maintain them in jail.

These resources could be better allocated to address infrastructure improvement, education, or healthcare issues. Simultaneously, these laws further hinder the victims from accessing employment opportunities. For example, those who resort to prostitution for income may find themselves arrested. It deepens economic hardship by restricting their engagement in activities that help to secure daily sustenance.

Moreover, labeling someone as a “reputable thief” based on past convictions, as stated in Section 28(c) of the Criminal Procedure Act, is discriminatory. It also undermines the concept of rehabilitation and second chance. Judging a person based on past violations for which they have already been punished is unjust.

Tanzania incurs significant costs trying to maintain a criminal justice system that arrests and detains people who are homeless, beggars, and prostitutes. The police and prison services spend considerable funds on getting convicted in these cases. In addition, the government spends about $0.56 per day to keep a prisoner. Overcrowded jails lead to more expenses because the government spends more money to treat health issues that come with crowded prisons.

The excuse of preserving Tanzanian values and traditions cannot justify limiting individual freedoms. Criminalizing prostitutes or those who sleep in public spaces has nothing to do with customs. If traditions are against development, they are not worth observing. To create a just and prosperous society, Tanzania must reevaluate its approach to vagrancy. Emulating countries that have abandoned such laws and embraced compassion and understanding is crucial.

The country has the opportunity to foster a more inclusive and compassionate society where freedom and dignity are for all. Abolishing the vagrancy laws and focusing on sustainable development and support systems can lead to a brighter future for Tanzanians.

Any sustainable approach to vagrancy must consider the complexities of social issues and address underlying causes. Such an approach must also promote human rights and individual freedom.

Francis Nyonzo is a writing fellow at African Liberty. He is available at francisnyonzo@gmail.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further clarification.

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