In Prison Debate, Race Overshadows Poverty

The way to stop filling up prisons is to end the War on Drugs, curb inequality and change our perspective on class

Racial discrimination is often used to explain the fact that 1 percent of American adults is behind bars and that we’re the only Western democracy not to have abolished the death penalty. Given that America’s prisoners are disproportionately black and Hispanic, this is understandable. But what’s often overlooked is class — even though the clear majority of white, black and Hispanic prisoners stems from the underclass and working class.

Criminal justice systems are largely a reflection of economic systems. It is no coincidence that their practices are the most humane in Scandinavian countries, known for their high degree of economic solidarity. In a society marked by sharp wealth inequality, such as modern-day America, the criminal justice system can come to negate solidarity and embody the notion that those at the bottom rungs of society are little more than a nuisance. Thus, the U.S. criminal justice system emphasizes harsh retribution, disfavors rehabilitation and tends to ignore social factors behind crime, such as poverty, failing public schools or lax gun control.

America could put an end to mass incarceration by following the example of other Western democracies. Prison terms in those countries are much shorter in all types of cases, and very lengthy terms are usually reserved for the worst offenders. With regard to nonviolent offenders, these countries are also less likely to rely on incarceration as opposed to fines or probation. In addition to other reforms, America should therefore abandon peculiar and counterproductive policies like the “War on Drugs,” “three strikes laws” and harsh mandatory-minimum stays in prison.

Authorizing the recreational use of marijuana — like the Netherlands, Colorado and Washington have done — could go a long way. In 2011, over 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses in America, 87 percent of whom were charged with possession only. As documented by Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow,” local police departments have received substantial federal funding to aggressively pursue minor offenders as part of the “War on Drugs.” Such incentives should be eliminated.

- Read the entire article at Salon.

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