Brooke Bergen was caught stealing an $ 8 tube of mascara in Dent County, Missouri – and not only did she end up going to jail for a year for it, she ended up with a bill for $ 16,000 for his time in detention.
This is the reality of criminal justice in America, writes St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger in his new book “Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice. âIn the states of the United States, people are regularly jailed for not being able to pay the fines and costs imposed by the courts.
As Messenger explains, 80% of criminal cases in America are misdemeanors. And while the punishment for these minor infractions may seem minimal on paper, it’s complemented by a plethora of fees that often leaves defendants with low incomes on a payment plan. ‘Pension bills’ like the ones Brooke Bergen had to pay for her stay in Dent County are just the most shocking iteration of a system that locks people into a cycle of missed payments followed by punishment from prison.
Speaking of one of the single mothers he talked about in his book, Messenger explained on Friday. Saint Louis on the air: âEvery month she has to try to understand: ‘Am I stealing Peter to pay Paul? Where can I find the money? Should I skip the gas money today? Do I buy my prescription drugs? Or do I have to pay the courts? ‘ And then when she doesn’t pay the courts, she gets an arrest warrant against her and ends up with more costs and has to deal with that. And this is the common reality for the poor across the country who, sadly, are involved in the criminal justice system.
Listen to Tony Messenger on St. Louis on the Air
Messenger’s columns on debtor prisons won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. They also led to reforms in Missouri. In 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that counties could charge board bills, but they could only use civilian tools to collect them, not threaten new prison terms. Spurred on by Messenger’s reporting, the Missouri legislature codified this same idea into state law.
But while Messenger’s columns on the issue have been among its most popular, with positive feedback from both conservatives and liberals, the reforms don’t go far. As he describes in his book, a last-minute amendment to Missouri law ironically added an extra $ 10 to many court cases – for extra money meant to increase the salaries of deputy sheriffs. And charging people with jail time in Missouri remains not only legal practice, but standard practice in all but two of the rural counties.
Messenger said it’s easy to see why the problem is so stubborn.
âAnytime you talk about taking a fee that’s built into the criminal justice system, there’s someone in the back who loses that money, and it becomes a group that you have to fight,â he explained.
Beyond that, court fees have become a funding mechanism that allows lawmakers to brag about not having raised taxes. Meanwhile, the system operates largely out of the public eye, and attacks a population that many Americans refuse to sympathize with.
âIt’s too easy in some jurisdictions, and for some people, to just say, ‘Well, these are criminals,’â Messenger noted.
With his book, Messenger hopes to show the humanity of those trapped in a ruthless cycle. He even writes about his own experience on the brink of poverty, to the point of salvaging a car years ago while he and his children sat at the kitchen table having lunch.
He said the book was difficult to write after years of measuring its output in column inches, not pages.
âYou get into a rhythm as a columnist,â he said. âI write 700, 800 words four times a week, and you make this habit. And then all of a sudden you’re trying to write a story that’s over 70,000, 80,000 words long. And, you know, I struggled and made mistakes.
He credited his editor. “He would send back a copy after I sent him, and just say, ‘It’s here, Tony, it’s here, but it’s not connected; you have to rework it. And it took me a long time, and I hope the readers think I got it. “
What: Tony Messenger Book Discussion
When: 7:10 p.m. Dec.
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131
“Saint Louis on the airâBrings you the stories of Saint-Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah fenske and produced by Alex heuer, Emily woodbury, Evie hemphill and Lara hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The sound engineer is Aaron Doerr.