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The U.S. criminal justice system financially traps poor Americans

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Photo of Tony Messenger by Christian Gooden, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

In "Profit and Punishment," Tony Messenger dissects the ways in which America is creating a new model of debtors' prison.

Conviction for a minor crime can still mean expensive fines and fees. For those unable to pay, the result could be jail time.

While in detention, these people miss payments to the court. Additional fees are frequently added on top of the existing money owed. The result is a vicious cycle of punitive action against the defendant for what was a minor infraction.

Tony Messenger says states like Missouri have used the added fees as a means of providing funds for things like pensions for the police.

"State lawmakers have used the courts as a way to raise backdoor taxes," Messenger explains. "And it's poor people who end up paying those taxes and suffering the consequences if they can't afford to pay it."

For those who wind up serving jail time due to their inability to pay fees, some receive large bills after they are freed.

One example Messenger points to is that of Brooke Bergen, a Missouri woman who stole an $8 tube of mascara. She ultimately spent one year behind bars and received a $15,900 bill for her time in jail. As she was unable to make her payments, she was forced to return to court month after month.

"Even after she had already served this time, she could never escape the clutches of the court because they were trying to collect her money," Messenger explains.

There may be good news on the horizon. A $3 fee attached to every criminal case in Missouri that was created by the legislature to fund rural sheriffs' retirements was found to be unconstitutional.

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