The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For poor defendants, minor crimes can lead to devastating debts

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America has long had the highest rates of poverty among the wealthy industrialized countries. Not only do we lead in poverty, but our conditions of impoverishment are incredibly damaging. Rather than providing support to the poor, U.S. social policies appear designed to punish and stigmatize them. Nowhere is this more clear than in Tony Messenger’s book, “Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice.”

Since 2017, Messenger has been the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Much of his work has focused on small-town America, where he has doggedly tracked down case after case of folks being jailed and their lives ruined because they could not afford the fines and fees imposed by the judicial system. His book follows three of them, all single mothers living in poverty.

The process goes something like this: An individual is arrested for a minor, nonviolent offense such as shoplifting, a traffic violation or possession of drugs. Bail is set at $500. The defendant is poor and does not have the cash. She is then placed in jail for days or weeks until her court hearing, but all this time the dollar clock is ticking. Most states have what are known as “pay-to-stay” statutes. This means that the individual is being charged for her room and board as long as she is behind bars.

Eventually she is encouraged to enter a guilty plea for a probationary sentence of one or two years. But now she must return to court each month and begin paying back her court fines and fees and pay-to-stay costs. Judges serve as debt collectors for the county government. And if the guilty party fails to show up or make a monthly payment, she often finds herself back in jail, with her debt rising even higher. As Messenger writes, “In most jurisdictions, the largest of these fines is the bill for time in jail, as if one has spent a year in a hotel.” Charles Dickens wrote about such debtors’ prisons in 19th-century England, and Messenger’s book shows that they are alive and well in 21st-century America.

The result of this process is that individuals may lose their jobs, their homes and their cars as a result of failing to pay the court costs. Many will never recover. In one particularly heart-rending story, Messenger writes about a woman who shoplifted an $8 tube of mascara from a Walmart and wound up owing $15,000 in court fines and fees.

A number of years ago, the sociologist Herbert Gans wrote a provocative essay asking who benefits from poverty. Likewise, we can ask: Who is benefiting from the current criminal justice system that preys on the poor?

And here is where the story that Messenger is reporting becomes especially powerful and infuriating. Rural communities in particular have been starved of resources over the past decades. Legislators have been adamant about not raising taxes, and therefore they have turned to what are known as backdoor taxes to help fund their communities and constituents. These taxes fall disproportionately upon the poor through the fees and fines I’ve described. For example, the city of Ferguson, Mo., was notorious for imposing such backdoor taxes, which eventually led to demands from the community for reform in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by police.

These taxes are used to support a variety of services and constituents, including the criminal justice system itself. Messenger writes: “As corrections costs went up in the late twentieth century, lawmakers sought to collect from the very people they were putting away, and those additional costs pushed people deeper into poverty, which further compromised their ability to pay. Over the past four decades, this vicious cycle has become fully baked into the criminal justice system.”

In addition, private companies have gotten into the act. Misdemeanor probation is often supervised by companies with a profit motive. Prisons may be operated by private corporations with a need for a large incarcerated population to fill cells. In short, the criminal justice system is big business. The irony is that it is the poor who wind up paying disproportionately for a system that preys upon them. Research has shown that the poor pay more for a wide array of goods, from financial services to housing to weekly groceries. So too it would appear with respect to criminal justice.

The good news is that as a result of reporting by journalists such as Messenger and the work of community activists, cities and states across the country have begun to change some of their policies. For example, in the wake of the Ferguson uprising, the Missouri Supreme Court issued rules that curbed municipal court abuses, while the state legislature passed a law limiting the amount of revenue a city can receive from traffic tickets. But as Messenger correctly points out, there is still a long way to go before justice is not dependent on the size of one’s wallet.

Every once in a while there is a voice calling out in the wilderness to draw attention to a particular social injustice. And every once in a while, perhaps because of the righteousness and eloquence of that voice, the message is heard. “Profit and Punishment” epitomizes that voice.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was founded by Joseph Pulitzer. In 1907 he wrote the newspaper’s platform, which has appeared on its editorial page every day since. It concludes with the words, “Never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or by predatory poverty.” By shining a light on “predatory poverty,” Messenger has done his readers, his community and the nation a great service.


How America Criminalizes the Poor
in the Name
of Justice

By Tony Messenger St. Martin’s Press. 272 pp. $28.99