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Post-Dispatch Columnist Tony Messenger: Debtors’ Prisons ‘Massive Problem’ In Missouri

(Jan. 24, 2019) St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger joined "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss the practice of debtors' prisons in rural Missouri.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

About a year and a half ago, a story about Victoria Branson of St. Francois County caught the attention of St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger. Judge Sandra Martinez sent Branson to prison for being behind on paying court fees. 

Messenger noticed a pattern of people going to jail for not paying fines. He explained the “debtors’ prison” practice – when people, who are usually poor, are jailed for minor crimes and can’t pay the fines or make bail.

“This is against a long-standing understanding of law, not just the prohibition of debtors prison, but something going back to the Magna Carta called the ‘no sale of justice’ – that basically you have to give access to the judicial system to people that have money [and] don't have money,” Messenger said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

He talked with Don Marsh about his reporting series on debtors' prisons in rural Missouri.

After Messenger wrote about Victoria Branson’s story, others began informing him about similar cases in St. Francois County.

“And I didn't know at that point that there is this massive problem in Missouri,” he explained. “What happens in all of the rural counties except for a couple of them – and it doesn't happen in the urban areas – is that when you go to jail, you get a bill for that jail time: $35 a day, $50 a day and then you get billed for that and so people are going to jail on minor offenses.”

Messenger described the case of how a woman from Dent County shoplifting an $8 mascara tube led to court fees of more than $15,000.

“People are just horribly offended by that … One of the things that has been driving this series is the support that I get from Republicans, from Democrats, from people in the city, from people in rural areas,” he said.

“It's hard to find an issue that unites the left and the right. Well, this is it. This is the one issue right now – criminal justice reform. And I'm writing about really just one small part of it.”

Listen to the full discussion to hear more about the debtors’ prison practice in Missouri:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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