Why are the majority of prisoners on death row people of color? In fact, 58% of them are including 42% who are black. According to the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national organization lobbying to abolish the death penalty, the reason is poverty. Poverty is a primary factor in determining who is executed and the poverty is persistent problem for many people of color.
The impacts of poverty can start early with children of color. It begins with lack of access to educational resources needed to succeed. Children of color are rarely taught by teachers who look like them. They don’t see materials featuring them. Many have learning disabilities and histories of abuse or neglect. These factors can lead to higher incidences of suspension due to misbehavior. In fact, black children are three times more likely to be suspended as white children.
The school to prison pipeline is well documented. Children, mostly male, are moved out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Suspension leads to crime that leads to prison. For young men, who are not respected in society or school and who see no future, crime might be the only option open to maintaining self-respect. According to the ACLU, “students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.”
When people in poverty commit crimes that could receive the death penalty, they often cannot afford legal counsel that could build a sufficient case to freedom or ensure life without parole. They often suffer from mental illness or addiction and have experienced more childhood abuse or trauma. And of course, experienced racial discrimination as described in the school to prison pipeline.
As Catholics, we are encouraged to have a preferential option for the poor. Jesus did. It’s one of the Social Justice teachings of the church. We are compelled by our faith to work to tear down those unjust social constructs that contribute to the high number of poor especially people of color in prisons and on death row. We need to provide programs to build the self-esteem of young men. We need to improve schools and implement restorative justice practices that will keep children in school. And we need to abolish a death penalty that primarily punishes the poor.