There has always been a high cost to being poor–renting instead of owning, payday loans instead of credit, and purchasing one meal at a time instead of the month’s groceries.

If you or I are arrested, we will make bail and return home. We have the money to await trial at home. But the process takes on new dimensions in the criminal justice system for those without money.

If you are poor and can’t afford bail, then you sit in jail awaiting a hearing. Meanwhile, you lose your job and perhaps your apartment and car. Then to add insult to injury, when you can finally get a hearing and be released, you are handed a bill for your stay. Unable to pay, you are fined for non-payment and perhaps even put back in jail, only to receive another invoice for your “room and board” in jail. And if you have managed to maintain a job and keep your car, the state might revoke your driver’s license for your sin of non-payment.

A required “ability to pay” hearing should make sure that poor people are not hit with these charges. However, a perverse series of incentives (the incarceration fees are used for the salaries and retirement system for local officials) makes it unlikely that such a hearing will occur.

In this excellent book, Tony Messenger explains how these modern debtors’ prisons work to keep poor people poor and use their money as a resource to be extracted by local government, despite the nearly 200-year prohibition on imprisonment for debt. The effort to eliminate modern-day debtors’ prisons is not a partisan issue. In fact, it leads to some interesting bedfellows (such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union).

Messenger is an excellent writer and tells great stories (sad and courageous). The main problem I had reading the book was getting so angry that this was happening in my state and country that I could not concentrate.

I hope that every one of you will put it on your reading list and use your voice and influence to bring this issue to the attention of everyone and to let your representatives know that you want to see change.

Amazon Link