In a country with skyrocketing poverty rates, it could set a strong precedent
It could be basic compassion or it could be Pope Francis’s influence, but Italy’s highest court just ruled that the theft of a small amount of food when one is starving isn’t a punishable offense. Roman Ostriakov, a homeless Ukrainian man, stole cheese and sausages in 2011. Last year, he was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail and a fine. The court’s latest judgment overturns that, and “reminds everyone that in a civilised country not even the worst of men should starve.”
While it’s not a declaration that everyone can now steal bread from the mouths of decadence, this is a grand statement in a country where “statistics suggest 615 people are added to the ranks of the poor ... every day,” according to Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. Italy is a deeply Catholic country, and there is certainly biblical precedent to the new ruling. Consider this verse from Proverbs 6:30: “People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.”
There is also some global precedent for how Italy’s court responded to this case. Writing in Bloomberg View, Berlin-based Leonid Bershidsky cites an occasion in the U.K. when a family forced to live on $11.58 per week was caught taking from a Tesco dumpster and ultimately let go. It’s rather rare that people are let off for the crime, though, so it should be interesting to see how this creates a precedent in Italy: The New York Times points to statistics that show an increase in Italian hunger-related food thefts over the the last few years and chain Alì Supermercati has launched a new initiative in which they post pictures of shoplifters at the entrances to stores.
There are certainly discrepancies in how those who are caught stealing food are treated the world over; it depends on the law enforcement agency and whether the hungry person is deemed worthy of pity. Recently in Venezuela, hungry soldiers were caught stealing goats for food while left with nothing to eat amid the country’s current economic woes, but are likely to be prosecuted. The mentally ill and those with prior convictions, too, aren’t always as lucky as Ostriakov.
A 2013 study by Coventry Central Food Bank in the UK found that almost half the respondents polled had at one point stolen food for themselves or their families. Anecdotally, the Guardian also found multiple municipalities across the UK reporting higher incidences of hunger-based theft. Bershidsky calls for a universal basic income that would streamline welfare systems: “The basic charitable impulses are there, as the Italian court has shown; all that is lacking is the will to turn random acts of kindness into policy.”
Whatever the motivation behind this particular compassionate decision, it’s prompted a necessary global discussion about the morality of persecuting our neediest populations. With 795 million people in the world who don’t get enough to eat — a number that is steadily increasing — this dialogue couldn’t be more vital.