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in law, term applied to the offense of persons who are without visible means of support or domiciledomicile
, one's legal residence. This may or may not be the place where one actually resides at any one time. The domicile is the permanent home to which one is presumed to have the intention of returning whenever the purpose for which one is absent has been accomplished.
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 while able to work. State laws and municipal ordinances punishing vagrancy often also cover loitering, associating with reputed criminals, prostitution, and drunkenness. The punishment is usually a fine or several months in jail. Instead of arresting vagrants, local officials often attempt to induce them to move on. Beginning in the 1960s vagrancy laws came under constitutional attack. The vague statutory language was often held to be too broad, in violation of the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: individuals were not adequately warned of what conduct was forbidden and police had too much discretion in deciding whether to make an arrest. It was ruled that enforcement of the laws often violated the protections of the First Amendment, especially when police used them against political demonstrators and unpopular groups. U.S. vagrancy laws generally punish the status of being a vagrant and not some overt act. This approach derives from English laws of the 16th cent. that generally failed to distinguish between the indigent and the criminal and that set harsh punishments, including whipping and transportation to the colonies. England gradually modified its poor lawspoor law,
in English history, legislation relating to public assistance for the poor. Early measures to relieve pauperism were usually designed to suppress vagrancy and begging.
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 and today punishes only overt acts dangerous to the community. Vagrants are often tolerated as scavengers, and in certain East Asian countries they are ascribed semireligious qualities, revered, but also feared, for their spiritual powers. Vagrants are basically a product of unemployment and their numbers swell during depressions.


See C. J. Ribton-Turner, The History of Vagrants and Vagrancy (1887, repr. 1972).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a social phenomenon in exploitative states engendered by the neediness and uncertain existence of workers. It is expressed in a person’s continuous movement from place to place, a homeless way of life, living on charity, and the like. In an exploitative social structure the persons compelled to become vagrants are deprived by society itself of the opportunity of participating in productive labor.

In tsarist Russia vagrancy was very widespread as a result of the difficult material conditions of workers; over the course of centuries, impoverished town dwellers, fugitive serfs and convicts, shelterless invalids and shelterless elderly, and wandering monks became vagrants and beggars. In the second half of the 19th and early 20th century, in conditions of the general economic decline of the village and also as a result of crop failures, fires, and cattle plagues, the number of vagrants increased, and they headed in large numbers to the cities, where they lived mainly by begging.

The causes of vagrancy in modern bourgeois states are exploitation, economic crises, impoverishment of the village, chronic unemployment, and wars and the neediness they engender among the poorest strata of the population. In bourgeois society accumulation of capital and technological progress inevitably turn part of the workers into surplus labor; these workers are excluded from the sphere of social production and are thereby condemned to poverty and a homeless way of life. The number of vagrants is particularly high in urban districts populated by the poor. The forced character of labor in capitalist society also gives rise to vagrancy. The ranks of the chronically unemployed, a significant part of whom become vagrants, are continually replenished by ruined small producers from the city and the village, down-and-out representatives of the intelligentsia, and others.

Despite the objective inevitability of vagrancy in bourgeois society, the legislation of many capitalist countries regards vagrancy as a crime requiring punishment. For example, in the USA the code of the state of California (paragraph 647) contains a lengthy definition of vagrancy, which is punishable by severe fines or deprivation of liberty. [A vagrant is defined as] every person who roams the streets during late or night hours without obvious or legal purposes, or every person who takes shelter in any warehouse, shed, or railroad car … without the owner’s permission, or every person known as a drunkard, and so on. In Great Britain there are three categories of persons who are subject to punishment for vagrancy: (a) parasites (petty peddlers wandering and trading without the required permit, beggars, and others); (b) vagrants (persons who beg by displaying their wounds or deformities, persons living in sheds … and presenting themselves in a bad light, and the like); and (c) incorrigible vagrants (persons repeatedly carrying out activities as outlined in point “b”). The Italian criminal code (art. 670) punishes begging by deprivation of liberty (arrest). The vagueness and imprecision of legal formulations make it possible to subject any unemployed or unfortunate person to punishment for vagrancy and to deprive persons who do not present any danger to society of their liberty. The police often use measures intended to combat vagrancy for the repression of the poorest strata of the population who protest against severe social conditions.

In socialist society, where exploitation of man by man and unemployment do not exist and the material conditions of the workers are systematically improving, vagrancy as a social phenomenon has been overcome. The cases of vagrancy and accompanying begging that occur represent a form of evasion of socially useful work by antisocial elements, a parasitic attempt to live at the expense of society, a means to escape criminal responsibility for crimes committed, and a refusal to pay alimony and to care for children. (Many vagrants are sought as criminals and nonpayers of alimony.)

In the USSR existing legislation specifies that vagrancy and begging are criminal offenses under certain conditions. Vagrancy is understood to mean a periodic change of place of residence for the purpose of evading socially useful labor, and begging (which is often combined with vagrancy) is understood to mean existing for a more or less lengthy period of time by asking other people for money or other material valuables for purposes of parasitic enrichment. Citizens reaching 18 years of age and capable of working are subject to punishment for vagrancy and begging. Youths aged 16 to 18 who are drawn into vagrancy and begging are placed in jobs or in childrens’ establishments; sometimes guardianship over them is arranged and so on. The Criminal Code of the RSFSR (Art. 209) and the criminal codes of some other Union republics make systematic vagrancy and begging punishable by correctional tasks for a term of up to one year or deprivation of liberty for a term of up to two years if they continue after the vagrant or beggar has received repeated warnings from administrative organs to find work and change his way of life. Drawing minors into the occupation of begging or exploiting them for purposes of parasitic existence is a particular form of crime (Criminal Code of the RSFSR, Art. 210). Taking into account the serious nature of drawing minors into begging, the law provides severe punishments for such crimes—deprivation of liberty for a period up to five years.

In some Union republics of the USSR, in view of the complete absence of vagrancy and begging, these forms of crime are not covered in the criminal codes.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.