New Book Takes on Debt

By Joe Siegel

In their new book, “The New Debtors’ Prison,” authors Christopher Maselli and Paul Lonardo have exposed the deep flaws in our criminal justice system as well as the staggering amount of debts faced by the average American. Maselli, an attorney, is a former state senator from Johnston. Lonardo is a writer for the Smithfield Times and has co-authored several books.

“While such debtor’s prisons were abolished in this country more than 80 years ago, this country is facing a new epidemic. What amounts to crimes of debt, owing money that cannot be paid back, is being invoked upon the middle-class Americans,” Lonardo and Maselli write.

Lonardo was surprised by the large percentage of people in prison for failing to pay their debts.

“I was aware that people were getting into debt in various ways,” Lonardo said. “Whether it’s credit card, school loan debt, other types of debt, but I really wasn’t aware people were actually being put into prison for it. It was kind of shocking to learn how many people are in jeopardy of losing their freedom over unpaid debt of various kinds.”

The book cites a report conducted by the Brennan Center of Justice, which states that of the approximate 1.46 million state and federal prisoners, “an estimated 39% (approximately 576,000 people) are incarcerated for crimes that do not involve any genuine public safety concerns.”

“I see it in private practice every day,” Maselli said. “For instance, I have a client who was a former truck driver and he seemed to have wracked up a couple of traffic citations when he was driving up and down the east coast. He couldn’t afford to pay those fines. He had to make a choice at some point: ‘Do I pay these hefty fines I wracked up or do I keep feeding my (children) and paying the electric bill?’”

Maselli said his client lost his drivers’ license after the fines were doubled and tripled when he failed to pay them. The client later went to work at Stop and Shop in order to provide for his family. Maselli explained the man has to drive to his job every day so he’s driving on a suspended license, which could result in another fine.

“It’s kind of a cyclical thing that people get stuck up in,” Maselli noted. “You see all the time they can’t get out of the cycle of debt. They come (to my office) and a lot of times I tell them: ‘you don’t need to see me, you need money.’

“But the problem is, they don’t make enough. They’re just getting by going from paycheck to paycheck.”

The authors note: “The high rates of unemployment and government fiscal shortfalls that followed the housing crash have increased the use of debtors’ prisons, as states look for ways to replenish their coffers. Cash-strapped cities and states are increasingly trying to tap a previously overlooked pot of money—uncollected fines, fees and other costs imposed by civil and criminal courts—in order to help them balance their books.”

The use of red light cameras to generate revenue for cities and towns has become increasingly commonplace.

“ As of 2013, 24 states and the District of Columbia had installed red light cameras, and the average ticket was approximately $100.00 with the highest penalty in California at a whopping $490.00,” Lonardo and Maselli write. “These automated traffic cameras raise an enormous amount of cash for communities. In Providence, Rhode Island, a city with no viable mass transit system, the coffers took in $137,092 in 2014 for fines from red light cameras to predicting revenue from the same source to be over $1.2 million in expected income in 2018. There has been roughly an 89% increase in four years.”

“The New Debtors’ Prison” also examines the inadequacies of mass incarceration.

The amount of money being spent by the correctional system is “sickening,” said Maselli, who spent time in federal prison for mortgage fraud.

He believes inmates, many who never had access to formal education, should be taught a trade like construction or plumbing so they can make a living when they are released.

“Our thinking is backwards,” said Maselli, who attributes the high recidivism rate to a lack of education being provided to inmates in the prison system. Prisoners are fed and housed courtesy of the government, yet they are never given the basic skills to become a productive member of society once they are released. With no way to earn an honest living, these ex-convicts tend to return to a life of crime.

“They go back to their old habits,” Maselli explained. “It’s a cycle.”

Maselli believes he is fortunate compared to the inmates he met while imprisoned at Fort Dix.

“There was a light at the end of the tunnel for me,” Maselli noted. “I had a good support system.”