Former Johnston state Sen. Christopher Maselli hopes readers see his first book, which was published in May, as eye-opening.
Maselli – who was convicted of fraud in 2010 and spent more than two years in federal prison – said he used his experience in prison and as an attorney to dive into the “general lack of awareness” concerning the “insidious undercurrent” of debt across the country.
Maselli, together with author Paul Lonardo, published “The New Debtors’ Prison” to analyze how debt affects the poor and middle class.
In the description for the book, it is noted that 20 percent of the American prison population is comprised of those who are there for a financial reason, such as not paying a fine. Maselli told the Sun Rise during an interview Monday that he hopes to shed light on the proliferation of the problem and encourage prison reform.
“I’m a true believer in thinking that we need to find different ways to punish people,” Maselli said. “I start to look at, I was in prison for 27 months. They warehoused me, they fed me three times a day, they were responsible for my medical. There were 400 guys there. There probably was a better way. It really didn’t make a difference whether you gave a person like me six months or 27 months. I got the message after a few weeks.”
Maselli said he had the first spark for his book while behind bars. He said he kept notes and conducted research to keep busy, and once he was able to reclaim his law license he saw it in action. He referenced one case on which he is currently working, involving a man who was driving his truck to the dealership to trade it in.
Maselli said the insurance had lapsed on the man’s truck, and he was involved in a minor accident on the way. The accident caused less than $2,000 in damage, but the alleged victim’s insurance company wants to sue the man for damages. He noted that Rhode Island has a system in place where a license can be suspended for three months for driving without insurance.
The company put in a claim to the Division of Motor Vehicles, who told Maselli’s client he would have to pay back the $1,800 in order to retrieve his license. Maselli said, though, that the man works two jobs to make ends meet and lives paycheck to paycheck.
“He doesn’t have the extra $1,800 laying around,” Maselli said. “So now, here’s a guy that needs to get to work. Luckily, I don’t think he has any children, but if he did it probably would make it worse. If not, if he can’t get to work, he’s going to lose his job. And at the same time, he has to try to save this money to get his license back.”
Maselli said the writing process took about a year, and he admitted that it felt like he was back in college with the amount of research he had to do. He referenced crimes such as lying on financial aid documents, and the situation that landed Maselli in prison – falsifying income on a mortgage application.
He also discussed a practice mostly lost to history now, where credit card companies would set up kiosks in shopping malls asking patrons to sign up. Even the slightest fib on those applications, paired with a “zealous” prosecutor, could land someone in trouble.
“You used to walk through the mall back in the day and there used to be credit card companies that’d ask you to fill out credit applications,” Maselli said. “Well, that credit application, people don’t realize if they put any wrong information – whether it’s the wrong income, their wrong assets, that they’re employed or they’re not employed – any misrepresentation of anything like that is a crime.”
He also said the book explores the history of debtors’ prisons – a practice of incarcerating those who cannot pay their debts which was outlawed in the United States more than two centuries ago.
He said that modern debtors’ prisons could result in people being imprisoned for failure to pay fines, or an “endless cycle” of debt from which it can be difficult to escape.
He referenced one specific case from the book concerning the small town of Waldo, Florida. He said the town – with one red light and seven police officers – yielded between $300,000 and $400,000. He said communities rely on these fines and court costs to reel in revenue.
“This probably affects poor people more than it affects anybody else,” Maselli said. ‘That is very true. However, the book also talks about how it can affect middle-class people. The middle class is, like, the biggest class in America. There’s so many people that identify as a middle-class person, and that gap could go from $30,000 a year to $80,000. So there’s a lot of people there, and it talks about those people – you know, a family of four – still working paycheck to paycheck.”
Maselli also expressed concern about – and offered a possible solution for – the high recidivism rate in the United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics studies showed that, of 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005, 68 percent were arrested again with three years. That figure rises to 79 percent within six years, and 83 percent within nine years.
Maselli said the key is to provide education and work to inmates so that they are better prepared to reenter the world. He said he spoke with some inmates who didn't want to leave the prison system at all.
“My theory is, unless you take these people and you put them in the system and you teach them a trade – whether it’s fixing lawnmowers, or cooking, or landscaping, something where they can come out and go to work – or you give them an education … unless you give them more than what they started with, you’re going to continue to go down this downward slope,” Maselli said.
He said strides have been made, most notably the FIRST STEP Act — standing for “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person” — that President Donald Trump signed into law late last year. According to stoprecidivism.org, the legislation is aimed at giving “deserving prisoners the opportunity to get a shortened sentence for positive behavior and job training, and giving judges and juries the power that the Constitution intended to grant them in sentencing.”
It’s one step forward in a marathon, but Maselli hopes that his book can open eyes to the issues and make progress toward more answers.
“The book isn't really just about Rhode Island, it’s about what’s happening nationwide,” Maselli said. “It’s kind of an eye-opener for the ordinary person, to say, hey, these are the things that could happen to you, without maybe having any intent of getting in trouble or getting locked up. These are the things you could run into in life … I think you’re seeing it trend upward.”
“The New Debtor’s Prison” can be found at skyhorsepublishing.com.