By: Vaidya Gullapalli | The Appeal

The Democratic Party debates begin tonight. Economic justice has been high on the agendas of several candidates and at a recent forum organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, the nine candidates in attendance were pushed to go beyond the concerns of the middle class and look specifically at poverty and its causes, including systemic racism. It will be worth paying attention to whether the causes and consequences of poverty feature in the debates tonight and tomorrow night.

So far there has been little attention given to how systems of policing and punishment penalize poverty and contribute to it. Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative drew attention to the issue this month, writing, “it’s mysterious and frustrating that none of these candidates have proposed to end our justice system’s criminalization of poverty—at least beyond the occasional nod to ending money bail.”

This is despite how many people are affected by the issue. “The incomes of people in U.S. prisons and local jails are overwhelmingly low, and one in two American adults has had an incarcerated close relative, meaning that a candidate who understands the criminalization of poverty could propose transformative reforms and speak to a huge number of voters,” Bertram wrote. “In particular, candidates are missing an opportunity to speak to Black voters, who are hit hardest by policies that punish poor people.”

In April, Emily Bazelon wrote in the New York Times: “For the candidates, thematically, a starting point should be that wealth should not determine a person’s fate in court, and profit should not drive the system. Bail bonds, privatized probation and corporate-run prisons are parasitic features of the justice system. Ending cash bail should be at the top of every candidate’s criminal justice agenda. So should getting rid of fines and fees that help fund local governments but trap people in cycles of debt.”

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