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The line between compassion and enforcement

Kingsport Times News • Oct 31, 2019 at 7:00 AM

Historically, vagrancy laws made it a crime for a person to be down on his luck through no fault of his own. These laws criminalized being homeless and jobless, which is why they’ve largely been stricken from the books.

But what to do with homeless people continually arrested for minor offenses and whose actions begin to pose a public threat?

Kingsport has in progress a response to its homeless population that may result in an organized effort to get them off the street and into a program of self-support. Meantime, we have folks like Ricky L. Laney, 51, charged with lighting another homeless person on fire.

Police were alerted to a fight at Memorial Gardens Park next to Dobyns-Bennett High School on Fort Henry Drive and found a man who said he had been asleep on a bench when he awoke to find his pants, shoes and blankets on fire. He said Laney was walking away. Laney admitted that he and the other homeless man had been in a fight. The victim believed the incident was possibly motivated by an incident a couple weeks prior, when Laney accused him of stealing a bottle of liquor.

Laney was charged with arson and aggravated assault. During transport to the Kingsport jail, he allegedly made threats about the other man: “As soon as I get out I’m gonna kill him.”

This is Laney’s fifth arrest this year. Prior to the most recent incident, he had been charged with public intoxication and resisting arrest. In the past four years, Laney has had at least 18 additional arrests in the city for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, theft and trespassing. That’s at least 23 arrests in five years.

Tennessee is among states with tools to deal with habitual offenders. The state has a three-strikes law intended to keep career criminals locked up for life, but that requires three felonies. The state had a habitual motor vehicle offender law which also required multiple serious traffic and criminal charges, but did away with it this past June.

Most homeless folks get by with the help provided, but some steal to support themselves on the street, and some are repeat drug and alcohol offenders, keeping police busy beyond what should be tolerated.

Even if Kingsport develops a program that provides a way off the streets for those willing to take it, the city will still have homeless people who are a continued threat to the public health, safety and welfare. For those, there should be mental health evaluations and laws that protect society from them, and them from themselves. It’s often a fine line between tough policy and compassionate assistance.

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