“Profit and Punishment” Explores the Trickle-Down Effects of Poverty in America’s Criminal Justice System

In Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Tony Messenger delivers a disturbing and revelatory report on the U.S. criminal justice system. He explores the system’s reliance on fees and fines that keep America’s vulnerable poor trapped and, often, behind bars.

Expanding on the work for which he won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, Tony Messenger exposes a relatively unknown side of America’s criminal justice system: backdoor fundraising in lieu of raising taxes by charging unaffordable fees to those arrested and convicted of misdemeanor crimes. When the fees go unpaid, those convicted risk being sent to jail. The result is a devastating merry-go-round of fines and imprisonment that achieves nothing while keeping generations of vulnerable American’s locked in a hopeless cycle of poverty and incarceration.

Officially, the United States banned debtors’ prisons in 1833. Yet, Messenger explains, facing financial charges for jail time, or receiving additional jail time for not being able to pay those charges, is not uncommon. Often the fees are relatively low, totaling hundreds or perhaps a few thousand dollars, but for the indigent, these amounts are insurmountable, keeping them from moving on with their lives. Instead of a successful reintegration from prison, releasees drown in more fees and lengthy jail time, often at odds with the severity of the original charge — which could be as trivial as getting a traffic ticket or shoplifting makeup.

More than an exposé on the criminal justice system’s “pay-to-stay” model, Messenger’s work is a powerful lesson in poverty for the rest of us. Through thoughtful case studies, he leads the reader through the small decisions and events in a person’s life that are inconsequential if one has financial resources, yet devastating if one does not. Messenger also reminds us that “poverty is relative.” He shares his own experience with financial vulnerability when he had to choose between paying the bill on his repossessed car and feeding his family. 

A strength of Messenger’s work is his ability to sidestep easy dismissal by typical geopolitical divides. He painstakingly strives to prove that this issue is not a geographic problem — it’s found in all 50 states —, nor is it a Black American problem — case studies from poor white Americans are featured alongside those from minority communities. While the failings of the criminal justice system appear overwhelming, Messenger offers this hope:

More than any other issue I’ve written about […] the abuse of poor people by the judicial system so that municipal and county governments — and some private companies — can profit has drawn massive, bipartisan support from lawmakers and readers who otherwise might not care about the politics of criminal justice reform. 

The reader gets glimpses of Messenger attending MAGA rallies and receiving letters from a Catholic priest, illustrating a seemingly universal rejection of the “pay-to-stay” [in jail] practices. “Amid the most divided political landscape of my life, I had stumbled upon a unifying issue,” Messenger observes.

And Messenger’s argument is convincing. By the end of nearly 200 pages, the reader is not only an ally but outraged. While it’s a relief to know that advocates on both sides of the political aisle support change, an oversight of this book is the absence of a clear call to action for the reader. Failing to provide an avenue to channel our collective disgust at the book’s closing is an unfortunate trip steps before the finish line of an otherwise well-executed argument for change.

Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice
By Tony Messenger
St. Martin’s Press
Published December 7, 2021