“Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice” tells the story of three single mothers trapped in a legal system that makes being poor a crime in itself.
The book details how a Dent County woman ended up owing $15,000 for stealing an $8 tube of mascara; how Missouri decided that, to help pay for the sheriff’s retirement funds, it was going to charge a court fee to every person who receives a ticket or passes through the courthouse; and how inmates in rural jails across the country have been charged, sometimes thousands of dollars, for their time in custody.
In describing this and other systemic problems, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Tony Messenger paints a picture of a criminal justice system that puts people in jail simply because they are poor.
The book was the subject of a talk given by Messenger at the Washington Public Library on Thursday evening.
Messenger began with the story of a mistake he made early in his reporting. He described how he started telling the story of Brooke Bergen, which was featured in his book, and how she ended up owing $15,000 in court for the time she spent in jail after stealing a tube of $8 mascara.
“What I thought I was going to write about was a math problem,” Messenger said. “It was a story that everyone was going to be able to relate to. On the one hand, they would see this $8 tube of mascara, and on the other, they would see this $15,000 bill for jail time. And even if they were really, really conservative and tough on crime, they might say, “That just doesn’t make sense.”
So he wrote the story as a newspaper column, he said, describing this unequal punishment, but after it was published he received a Facebook message from Bergen. She said: “I’m glad you care what happens to the people of Salem and Dent County because it seems like no one here cares what happens to us, but I wish you would. ‘call.”
This brought him to a realization: “This is not a story of mathematics, it’s a story of the human condition.”
He needed to tell the human stories behind the facts.
And that’s what he tries to do in his book, he says.
In doing so, he was brought to a reflection on himself. He told how he was arrested for expired tags when all of a sudden the police told him he had a warrant for his arrest. They handcuffed him to the back of the police car. He then learned that he had an unpaid speeding ticket.
“So a pretty minor situation, right?” he said. “I have a speeding ticket, I have a warrant for my arrest, I have bad etiquette.”
He then asked the policeman what he should do next. If he could post bail, he could just be taken to the station and released. If he didn’t, he would spend the night in jail. The $80 in his wallet was enough to cover the bail.
He told this story to a source. “She asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ “, he said. “That’s why I’m doing this: because I didn’t lose my children. I did not lose my car. I did not lose my apartment. I didn’t lose my job, I didn’t end up with my name in the papers.
“Nothing bad happened to me, because I’m a middle-class white man who had just enough money in my pocket and was in a jurisdiction that was not determined to make money from people convicted of fines and traffic offences,” Messenger said. “If I had been poor and black in northern St. Louis County, I would have ended up in jail that night. If I had been poor and white, and in Dent County or Ozark County or so many other places, maybe even here in Franklin County, I might have ended up in jail this that night.
After the conference, Messenger answered questions and signed books. The event was sponsored by the Neighborhood Reads Library and Bookstore.