Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice

St. Martin’s. Dec. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781250274649. $28.99. SOC SCI
Journalist and first-time author Messenger reported for years on the crushing impact of American criminal courts’ legal fees and fines on poor people and won a Pulitzer Prize for this work. His book compiles stories of individuals who are tethered to the courts for no reason beyond the inability to pay these costs. A vicious cycle of legal debt, recurrent court appearances, failure-to-pay charges, and incarceration befalls people such as Brooke Bergen, whose theft of an $8 tube of mascara led to a year in jail and over $15,000 owed. Messenger argues that these disproportionate outcomes for impoverished litigants result from localities’ strategy of raising capital through legal fees (in lieu of increasing taxes) and manifest the criminalization of poverty. Associated punitive practices (including cash bail, suspension of drivers’ licenses, and the use of speeding and parking tickets as revenue streams) heighten the harm, he writes—the revocation of driving privileges being particularly punitive as it effectively stops people from working and decreases the possibility that debts will ever be paid.
VERDICT Messenger persuasively, passionately exposes these injustices and their devastating consequences, points to recent bipartisan reform efforts, and calls for nationwide dismantling of this system of profit over justice. His book merits a wide readership among policymakers, legal practitioners, students, and general audiences.
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