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In ‘Profit and Punishment,’ Tony Messenger exposes how the justice system traps poor people

After more than two decades in journalism, Tony Messenger has written his first book.
Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
After more than two decades in journalism, Tony Messenger has written his first book.

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, but she wound up with a $16,000 bill for her time in custody.

Such is the reality of criminal justice in America, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger writes in his new book “Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice.” In states across the U.S., people are routinely jailed because they can’t afford the fines and fees imposed by the courts.

As Messenger explains, 80% of criminal cases in America are misdemeanors. And while punishment for those low-level offenses may look small on paper, it’s padded by a host of fees that frequently leaves low-income defendants on a payment plan. “Board bills” like the ones Brooke Bergen had to pay for her stay in Dent County are only the most shocking iteration of a system that locks people into a cycle of missed payments followed by jail time.

Speaking of one of the single mothers he wrote about in his book, Messenger explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air: “Every month she 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.”

Listen to Tony Messenger on St. Louis on the Air

Messenger’s columns on the issue of debtors 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 civil tools to collect them, not threaten further jail time. Spurred by Messenger’s reporting, the Missouri legislature codified that same idea into state law.

But while Messenger's columns on the issue have been among his most popular, with positive feedback from conservatives and liberals alike, the reforms only go so far. As he describes in his book, a last-minute amendment to the Missouri legislation ironically added another $10 fee onto many court cases — for a supplemental fund to increase deputy sheriff salaries. And charging people for jail stays in Missouri remains not only legal but common practice in all but two rural counties.

Messenger said it’s easy to see why the problem is such a stubborn one.

“Every time you talk about getting rid of a fee that is built into the criminal justice system, there's somebody on the back end that loses that money, and that becomes a constituency that you have to fight,” he explained.

Beyond that, court fees have become a funding mechanism that allows lawmakers to boast they haven’t raised taxes. Meanwhile, the system operates largely out of public sight and cracks down on a population that many Americans refuse to have sympathy for.

“It is too easy in some jurisdictions, and for some people, to just say, ‘Well, they're criminals,’” Messenger noted.

With his book, Messenger hopes to show the humanity of people trapped in an unforgiving cycle. He even writes about his own experience on the edge of poverty, to the point of having a car repossessed one day years ago as he and his kids sat at the kitchen table eating lunch.

He said the book was difficult to write after years of measuring his output in column inches, not pages.

“You get in a rhythm as a columnist,” he said. “I write 700, 800 words four times a week, and you get in that habit. And then all of a sudden, you're trying to write a narrative over 70,000, 80,000 words. And, you know, I struggled, and I made mistakes.”

He credited his editor. “He would send back copy after I sent it to him, and just say, ‘It's here, Tony, it's here, but it's not connecting; you need to rework it.’ And it took me a long time, and I hope readers think I figured it out.”

Related Event

What: Tony Messenger book talk
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 10
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. 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 audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.