“Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice," by Tony Messenger, St. Martins Press, NY, 2021. In this 244-page hardback, Messenger examines the many excesses of court charges for the poor. He is columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Some of the ideas here have appeared in his columns.
Those charged with misdemeanors often are sentenced to time served. But then they must pay court costs and in many places fees for their time in jail. Court costs can include items like the sheriff’s pension fund. Often the poor lack funds to pay. They can be required to come to court each month to pay what they can. If they miss a court date, warrants can be issued for their arrest. Then anything like a traffic stop can put them back in jail. While in jail they may lose their job, their car, their apartment. This becomes debtors prison–with no way out. People are imprisoned for non-violent violations.
The court visits themselves can be a problem. The victim must take time off work. They may sit in court for hours waiting for their case to come up. Transportation may be unavailable.
Messenger says this is one result of opposition to tax increases. Politicians find court costs easy to increase. After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO, we learned that numerous jurisdictions in Missouri use fines from traffic stops as income. These are often in poorer areas. Another way to hassle the poor.
He cites examples in the St. Louis area. Pine Lawn, a tiny town of 3,500, 96% black with per capita income of $13K collected $1.7MM in 2013 and had 23,000 outstanding warrants. Ferguson had 90,000 traffic citations between 2010 and 2014 and collected $2MM in fines and fees.
The 2008 recession was a factor. States reacted to falling income by cutting programs. Local governments used court fines and fees to make up the loss. In North Carolina, court fines and fees have risen 400% in the past two decades. Those who don’t pay can have their driver’s license suspended. Between 1980 and 2000, the population in US prisons increased from 300k to over 2MM. Debt prison is part of the problem.
Driving while black remains a problem in St. Louis. In 2013, black Missourians were 66% more likely to be pulled over by police than white drivers. A commission found that more than half of the courts in St. Louis County charged high fines and fees for traffic violations and arrest people when they don’t pay.
The Missouri Plan for appointment of judges is described. When there is an opening, candidates are interviewed by a commission with staggered terms. They recommend the top three candidates to the governor who makes the appointment. The judge must stand for retention election after one year and thereafter every six years for circuit judges and twelve years for appellate judges. All appellate judges are selected this way as are circuit judges in St. Louis, Kansas City and now Springfield, Green Co. The system was devised in 1937 in response to the Pendergast machine in Kansas City that extended its reach into the selection of judges. This system avoids election of judges which has a potential conflict of interest when they must ask for campaign contributions.
Cash bail is another system that works against the poor. Those who can’t post bail are sent to jail. Messenger thinks bail should be based on risk of flight or violence. We should limit income from court fines and fees for state and local governments. And stop suspending drivers licenses for failure to pay.
Along the way, Messenger interviews half a dozen victims of our debtors jail system.
This book addresses one aspect of poverty. It’s an informative read. We can and should do better. The story is thought provoking. Index. References.