I started in January reading a book each month about some aspect of mass incarceration that first started 50 years ago, and then I am reflecting on it in this space. This month I read an excellent book I highly recommend: Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice, by Tony Messenger.
A newspaper journalist by trade, he started noticing a trend in his reporting in St. Louis of poor people being charged with minor crimes and then amassing huge fines and fees, which of course, they are unable to pay. Since they are unable to pay they are usually jailed, which then creates even more court costs and fees they will have to pay. The ensuing, dehumanizing spiral leads to what we have created: a permanent underclass revolving in and out of incarceration.
Like all good books on the subject of our criminal justice system, Messenger points out the larger injustices through many stories of real people.
One man named Cory Booth stole a lawnmower in 2007 and then, after feeling bad about it, returned it, confessing his misdeed. He pled guilty to the misdemeanor and he received a suspended sentence. He was on two years probation however and of course, there was a fee as the company overseeing probation was a private company. Many of the fees go into the hands of private companies as there is lots of money to be made off of the incarceration of people, especially people of color.
As part of Booth’s probation he was regularly drug-screened, which he failed because he occasionally smoked pot. After several failed drug tests he was sentenced to a year in jail, which forced him into rehab. Coming out of jail he was married and was ready to settle down, build a family, and make a living. But as part of his stay in jail he had to pay mandated jail fees.
The fees kept rising year after year and though he is now married and has five children he and his wife are still forced to pay down his jail costs. In 2018, he still owed $5000. This is how we keep the poor as a permanent underclass through incarceration. A few failed drug tests and a year in jail has hung over Mr. Booth’s life for over a decade. His debt to society could remain with him forever all because he stole a lawnmower before he returned it.
Another story is Brooke Bergen who stole an $8 tube of mascara, went to jail for it, and ended up with jail costs totaling $16,000. All for a tube of mascara.
The stories of Cory Booth, Brooke Bergen, and so many others are repeated throughout Messenger’s book because 80% of criminal cases in the United States are misdemeanors. Court costs and “Board fees,” which happen as a result of a stay in jail, both conspire to keep poor people poor and/or incarcerated, which leaders to deeper poverty and then incarceration, and on and on it goes.
As Messenger explained in an interview on St. Louis public radio, “Every month [one of the people in his book] has to try to figure out, ‘Do I rob Peter to pay Paul? Where do I come up with the money? Do I skip gas money today? Do I buy my prescription drugs? Or do I pay the courts?’ And then when she doesn’t pay the courts, she gets a warrant out for her arrest and ends up with more costs and having to deal with that. And that’s the common reality for poor people all across this country who get, unfortunately, involved in the criminal justice system.”
Thankfully, Messenger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles led to reforms in Missouri. In 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that counties could continue to charge board bills, but they could not threaten further jail time in collecting those fines. This was later codified by the Missouri legislature as well.
However, like all small reforms, they only go so far. At the same time the Missouri legislature passed a law saying that more incarceration could not be threatened for those unable to pay their fees, they also passed a law adding another $10 fee to the court costs, which goes to sheriff salary increases (Messenger shows in his book how so often so many of the costs and fees go to supplement police and sheriff salaries, making them a natural advocate for this kind of revenue).
Despite how depressing this book is, it really is excellent, and it is one that should be read by not only the public, but lawmakers as well. If achieving justice requires that we create a permanent underclass of poor people then maybe that kind of justice isn’t justice at all.