Profit and punishment How America criminalizes the poor in the name of justice

Tony Messenger

Book - 2021

"In Profit and Punishment, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist exposes the tragedy of modern-day debtors prisons, and how they destroy the lives of poor Americans swept up in a system designed to penalize the most impoverished. "His Pulitzer Prize winning series on debtors' prisons in Missouri made a serious difference in real people's lives and his book will be a must read for a nation seeking a bipartisan path forward on criminal justice reform." -Claire McCaskill, former US Senator and analyst for MSNBC As a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tony Messenger has spent years in county and municipal courthouses documenting how poor Americans are convicted of minor crimes and then saddled with exorbitant fine...s and fees. If they are unable to pay, they are often sent to prison, where they are then charged a pay-to-stay bill, in a cycle that soon creates a mountain of debt that can take years to pay off. These insidious penalties are used to raise money for broken local and state budgets, often overseen by for-profit companies, and it is one of the central issues of the criminal justice reform movement. In the tradition of Evicted and The New Jim Crow, Messenger has written a call to arms, shining a light on a two-tiered system invisible to most Americans. He introduces readers to three single mothers caught up in this system: living in poverty in Missouri, Georgia, and South Carolina, whose lives are upended when minor offenses become monumental financial catastrophes. As these women struggle to clear their debt and move on with their lives, readers meet the dogged civil rights advocates and lawmakers fighting by their side to create a more equitable and fair court of justice. In this remarkable feat of reporting, Tony Messenger exposes injustice that is agonizing and infuriating in its mundane cruelty, as he champions the rights and dignity of some of the most vulnerable Americans"--

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New York : St. Martin's Press 2021.
Main Author
Tony Messenger (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xxvi, 244 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • By the Numbers
  • Prologue: The Poverty Penalty
  • Part I. Going to Court
  • 1. The Arrest
  • 2. Taxation by Citation
  • 3. No Sale of Justice
  • 4. Failure to Pay
  • Part II. Debtors' Prison
  • 5. Pay To Stay
  • 6. The Key to the Jailhouse Door
  • 7. Judges vs. Judges
  • Part III. Path to Freedom
  • 8. The Courthouse
  • 9. The Capitol
  • 10. The Koch Brothers Meet the ACLU
  • 11. A Tale of Two Letters
  • Epilogue: Poverty Is Relative
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

The extortionate fines and fees charged to indigent defendants are notable even among the myriad injustices entrenched in the American criminal justice system. Pulitzer Prize--winning journalist Messenger explores the byzantine paths of so-called justice, in which poor defendants accept a guilty plea without realizing the plea will commit them to paying hundreds of dollars in fines and fees. If they are unable to pay these costs in full, they must attend a monthly court date to make small payments and explain why they can't pay more. If they miss a court date or miss a payment, they are sentenced to jail time, for which they are charged a new round of fees, sinking them deeper into debt. Messenger explores the stories of the many defendants--mostly Black in cities, mostly white in rural areas--whose lives were permanently ruined by their commission of crimes as minor as stealing mascara from a drugstore. Profit and Punishment is persuasive and enraging, a book that will stir readers from both sides of the aisle to support reform.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Messenger debuts with a heartbreaking study of how the American justice system is weighted against the poor. Arguing that there are in fact two justice systems ("one for people with money, one for people without"), Messenger profiles individuals who have spent years in jail, or have fallen into serious debt, because an initial misdemeanor charge led to massive fines and escalating fees that they couldn't pay. As a result of Republican promises to never raise taxes, Messenger notes, cities saw their budgets shrink alarmingly over the past few decades. To make up for this shortfall, municipalities relied on revenue from traffic tickets, parolee drug testing, jail boarding fees, and increased bail. To that end, Messenger outlines the stoyr of Brooke Bergen, who pled guilty to shoplifting an $8 tube of mascara in 2016 and was given a one-year suspended sentence, but violated her parole by missing a phone check-in. When she was released from jail, Bergen owed nearly $16,000 in fees. In some states, nearly half of inmates are jailed for probation violations such as failure to pay--a situation Messenger argues is a violation of the Constitution's guarantee of due process. Interweaving hard evidence with harrowing firsthand stories, this is a powerful call for change. (Dec.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Journalist and first-time author Messenger reported for years on the crushing impact of American criminal courts' legal fees and fines on poor people and won a Pulitzer Prize for this work. His book compiles stories of individuals who are tethered to the courts for no reason beyond the inability to pay these costs. A vicious cycle of legal debt, recurrent court appearances, failure-to-pay charges, and incarceration befalls people such as Brooke Bergen, whose theft of an $8 tube of mascara led to a year in jail and over $15,000 owed. Messenger argues that these disproportionate outcomes for impoverished litigants result from localities' strategy of raising capital through legal fees (in lieu of increasing taxes) and manifest the criminalization of poverty. Associated punitive practices (including cash bail, suspension of drivers' licenses, and the use of speeding and parking tickets as revenue streams) heighten the harm, he writes--the revocation of driving privileges being particularly punitive as it effectively stops people from working and decreases the possibility that debts will ever be paid. VERDICT Messenger persuasively, passionately exposes these injustices and their devastating consequences, points to recent bipartisan reform efforts, and calls for nationwide dismantling of this system of profit over justice. His book merits a wide readership among policymakers, legal practitioners, students, and general audiences.--Janet Ingraham Dwyer, State Lib. of Ohio, Columbus

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A Pulitzer Prize--winning columnist reports on how the American justice system has fallen critically out of balance. Expanding on his series of columns for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Messenger exposes the widening divide between lawful fairness and the poverty-stricken population in rural Missouri communities. The author scrutinizes the tragic ways judicial systems keep poor citizens in a cycle of jail sentences via overwhelming financial burdens placed on them, from the time of arrest and even after their sentence is served. In many areas, the author notes, municipal budgets are tight. Seeking to counterbalance revenue shortcomings and underfunding, counties depend on court-generated fees, regardless of whether defendants can afford them or not. Messenger movingly profiles three single mothers who share their jailhouse ordeals of being abused by "a judicial process that often serves as a backdoor tax collection system." Convicted of a misdemeanor shoplifting charge for stealing a tube of mascara, Brooke Bergen went to jail for a year and struggled with a minor parole violation that induced a hefty fine she struggles to pay off. Along with the others Messenger profiles, like a young Oklahoman cited for marijuana possession, Bergen now finds herself at the mercy of an a la carte court fee system, mercilessly "tethered to the judicial system for years." A tenacious watchdog journalist, the author also reports on a Missouri judge who schedules extrajudicial "payment review hearings" to ensure court costs are collected monthly from defendants who have finished serving their time. When they can't pay, or miss the hearing, their jail sentences are reinstated. Messenger explains how he was nearly blocked from witnessing Bergen's public hearings. He closes on a positive note, elaborating on the glimmers of hope in the form of a growing coalition advocating for reform and equality. Victims have begun fighting back with civil rights legislation and litigation against a system so blatantly skewed against poverty-stricken communities. An eye-opening, relevant, and heartbreaking account on the epidemic of criminalized poverty. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.