Reporter vs. debtors prisons

Debtors Prison

Newspapers across Missouri daily prove their worth as trustworthy sources of information through writing everyday stories about how government does and does not operate, but on occasion they go above and beyond, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Tony Messenger did so with exceptional clarity through his standard-setting series of columns on debtors prisons.

Debtors prisons once existed as a way to punish people who could not pay their debts. 

Column after column, month after month, Messenger revealed that debtors prisons, long considered extinct by law, in fact took on a new life under the radar in the courts of some Missouri judges. He documented a disturbing pattern of constitutional abuse. Some judges made people who went to jail pay the cost of being jailed, and then judges would threaten more jail time and more fines for those who could not afford to pay the fines in the first place.

This de facto debtors prison program, a throwback to medieval times in Europe, oppressed poor people, especially.

Public defenders decried an unfair system similar to what existed before 1833, when the United States eliminated debtors prisons in this country. Missouri’s Supreme Court reviewed the problem and in March ruled debtors prisons unconstitutional. 

But some local-level judges, displaying either arrogance or ignorance, ignored the ruling. Messenger’s columns called them out.

“In Dent County, poverty isn’t an accident, it’s an industry,” he wrote in November, after a judge there, Brandi Baird, tried to keep him out of the public’s courtroom where debtors prison fines would be assessed. “Don’t have the money? Baird schedules you for a payment review hearing, and another, and another, all the while threatening you with more jail if you don’t pay.”

Messenger also wrote similar columns about poor people who could not pay their fines in several other counties, including Caldwell and Lafayette. 

With Messenger continuing to write about abuses, the Missouri General Assembly reacted. This year, lawmakers passed a bill, introduced by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, that made clear that fining offenders who could not pay their debts is illegal.

The legislation awaits Gov. Mike Parson’s signature.

“For bold columns that exposed the malfeasance and injustice of forcing poor rural Missourians charged with misdemeanor crimes to pay unaffordable fines or be sent to jail,” the Pulitzer Prize Committee wrote, Messenger won the Pulitzer Prize for “distinguished commentary.”

Messenger proved, dramatically, the valuable role newspapers play as a government watchdog and as one of democracy’s supporting pillars. 

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