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date: 28 June 2017

United States Vagrancy Laws

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The crime of vagrancy has deep historical roots in U.S. law and legal culture. Originating in 16th-century England, vagrancy laws came to the New World with the colonists and soon proliferated throughout the United States. Although they took myriad forms, vaguely worded statutes targeting objectionable, “oue-of-place” people, rather than any particular conduct, soon became a ubiquitous tool for maintaining hierarchy and order in American society. The laws and their application changed alongside perceived threats to the social fabric—at different times targeting labor activists, radical orators, cultural and sexual nonconformists, racial and religious minorities, civil rights protesters, and the poor. By the mid-20th century, vagrancy laws served as the basis for hundreds of thousands of arrests every year. But over the course of just two decades, the crime of vagrancy, virtually unquestioned for four hundred years, unraveled. Profound social upheaval in the 1960s produced a concerted effort against the vagrancy regime, and in 1972, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the laws. Local authorities have spent the years since looking for alternatives to the many functions vagrancy laws once served.