Tony Messenger has been running a mesmerizing series of columns in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the criminal justice system in rural Missouri. The latest column appeared on Friday, and they are all worth careful reading. [UPDATE: Messenger won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.]
The columns document how counties and judicial circuits around the state have turned their criminal justice systems into revenue-generating operations. A number of mechanisms have arisen to do this: Imposing high and ever-escalating court costs for probationers, requiring costly drug tests run by a private company, and incredibly enough, charging prisoners rent for the time they spend in jail.
The cumulative effect of all these tactics is that poor people — who are, of course, disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system — are serving as a new revenue stream for cash-strapped counties across the state. A dumb kid who messes up and runs afoul of the law gets pulled into “the system,” as it is so rightly called, and instead of simply serving his 30 days or whatever and putting the offense behind him, becomes a never-ending source of income for his county.
One can’t entirely blame the counties for this situation. Their tax bases are uncertain, especially in areas of the state with declining population (and thus sales taxes). They can’t keep raising property taxes, and in many cases have been finagled into giving property tax abatements to some of their biggest propertyholders by the promise of jobs in the future. (Boone County, where I live, has done that several times over the past few years, abating property taxes for companies that promise to locate in the county and bring new jobs.) So they look anywhere they can to make up the shortfall. Unfortunately, private companies that promise a fee for “services” like probation monitoring, drug testing, jail phone management, and the like offer a temptation that counties find hard to resist. And the disenfranchised end up bearing the cost. The subject of the most recent Messenger article is now homeless on the streets of Kansas City, not because he failed to complete his jail sentence, but because he couldn’t keep up with the mounting court costs that accumulated as a result.
We like to imagine debtor’s prisons as a long-ago horror from a novel by Dickens. Unfortunately, we seem to have re-created them in a new, corporatized, form. Any time you mix the workings of the criminal justice system and the profit motive, you are asking for abuse.