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In prison debate, race overshadows poverty

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.

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