“The right to survival prevails over property,” Italy’s highest court of appeals ruled this week when reviewing the case of a homeless man who had been given a six month jail sentence and a €100 euro fine for stealing cheese and sausages.
The man was caught before leaving the store and returned the goods, so the state prosecutor argued for the sentence to be reduced from “theft” to “attempted theft.”
But when the court of appeals heard the case, they radically upended the decision. This wasn’t worthy of punishment, they argued. In fact, taking food to stave off hunger should not even be considered a crime.
The judges wrote that the food had been taken "in the face of the immediate and essential need for nourishment."
They also rebuked the entire process that brought this case before them--an attempt to take less than €5 of food went through 3 rounds of court hearings.
Italy, like large parts of the world, is coping with a recession. Each day, 615 people in Italy fall into poverty, according an op-ed in response to the ruling, many of whom struggle to find housing and food. Forgetting about these people is not an option, the piece argued.
Another op-ed argued that the ruling aligned with one of the most fundamental pillars of Western legal thinking--the concept of humanity that says a person’s dignity should be protected and that dignity rises when basic needs like food, water, housing and security are met.
On one level, this ruling attempts to return sense, discretion and an appreciation of context to criminal justice. Why, after all, was it necessary to spend so many resources to punish a man suffering from hunger, especially when this punishment will only deepen his poverty? Why not, instead, provide food for this person?
On another level, this ruling is a radical rethinking of human rights. Sure, it connects to ancient ideas of “humanity,” but these ideas have never fully been practiced on a large scale. The thought of a homeless person walking into a grocery store and just taking food without paying for it is, in a way, a radical affront to the market-based logic that rules most societies. If you want food, you pay for it just like everyone else, right?
Then there’s a more mundane explanation to all of this. Recently, Italy passed a law requiring all sellers of food to donate unsold food to charities rather than throw it away. So this decision may have been made under the aegis of the new legislation.
But even still--in a world of abundance, should the vagaries of circumstance--job loss, illness, traumas--ever leave a person without the ability to get food?
When grocery stores around the world are stuffed with food, is it moral to allow someone to suffer from hunger?
These are challenging questions that strike at the core of many societal arrangements. But they’re questions that are worth asking, and finding some compromise for, in a time when inequality is rising and more people find themselves in economically distressed situations.
Globally, 795 million people do not have enough food to lead normal, healthy lives. Many more people struggle to buy and find food every day.
It’s unlikely that this ruling in Italy will lead to widespread theft from grocery stores and it’s cynical to suggest that a breakdown in the rule of law will follow (as some critics have suggested).
The more likely result will be an evaluation of what really matters in life and how much another person’s humanity should be respected.
In an ideal world, there would be consensus that a person’s dignity is the top priority in any situation and from there other rules based on other, secondary considerations would apply.