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Why Italy's high court said it was okay that a homeless man stole food

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Italy's highest court of appeals ruled stealing small amounts of food in the face of hunger and the "immediate and essential need for nourishment," is not a crime – it's survival.

Judges in the Supreme Court of Cassation overturned a homeless man's six-month jail sentence and €100 fine for attempting to steal roughly $4.50 in cheese and sausage. The decision does not set precedent, meaning people cannot start stealing food on the grounds of hunger. But for Ukrainian homeless man Roman Ostriakov, it brought some reprieve.

"The condition of the defendant and the circumstances in which the seizure of merchandise took place prove that he took possession of that small amount of food in the face of an immediate and essential need for nourishment, acting therefore in a state of necessity," the court wrote in its decision, the BBC reported.

The court said its decision "reminds everyone that in a civilised country not even the worst of men should starve," generating a lot of discussion over the state of poverty in Italy and around the world.

To many, the court ruling was a compassionate response to the increasingly existent problem of income inequality in Italy, a country that has been struggling since the financial crisis in 2008:

  • Italy had among the highest at-risk poverty rates in Europe in 2014, with nearly one-fourth of households at risk.
  • Nearly 20 percent of the population of Italy said they couldn't afford a meal with meat or vegetarian protein at least every other day, according to Eurostat.
  • One in five Italians said they can't afford to heat their homes adequately, according to the most recent data from 2012.
  • Forty percent of Italian households without children, and 45 percent of those with children, said they wouldn't be able to afford an unexpected financial expense, and just over 40 percent said they had trouble making ends meet.

And while there are many solutions to addressing poverty and inequality – Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky argues for universal basic income to "turn random acts of kindness [like the Italian court's ruling] into policy" – the judges allowed for a refocused perspective on the fundamental reality of basic human need.