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Behind Bars for Lack of Money

Nov 16th, 2013 | Category: Jailhouse Stories

By Katy Reckdahl, Contributor / December 16, 2012, The Christian Science Monitor

Perchelle Richardson still isn’t sure why she took the phone. Just five days earlier, for her 18th birthday, her mother had given her a standard, no-frills cellphone. But she loved the way iPhones looked, and her little brothers had seen this one through the car window as they played outside.

The high school student, with no previous criminal record, was arrested and, because her family couldn’t raise the $200 to spring her, would spend 51 days in jail, missing school, before she got her day in court. Her public defenders unsuccessfully asked the judge to release her without court fee and after that could do little beyond bringing her school worksheets, which she craved, she says, because they helped to break her boredom.

Ms. Richardson is symbolic of a little-known criminal-justice crisis that affects the millions of low-income Americans each year who languish behind bars in city and county jails. On any given day, three-quarters of a million people are jail inmates and two-thirds of them haven’t been convicted of anything, according to US Department of Justice statistics. They are awaiting trial, and an estimated 80 percent of them cannot afford to pay bail.

Most won’t go to prison: Overall, 95 percent of those booked into local jails in 2010-11 were not subsequently sent to prison, says Timothy Murray of the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI). And 75 percent of felony defendants will be judged innocent, given probation, or sent to rehabilitation programs and never end up being sentenced to prison, says longtime correctional researcher James Austin.

Richardson’s stay would have been longer, but an aunt helped the family put together the court fee. She was released two weeks before she was arraigned in court.

Many defendants, like Richardson, serve more time waiting for trial than the sentence they receive for their charges – particularly for petty or probation-worthy offenses. Yet in New Orleans, like other cities across the nation, there are countless stories about how the lives of poor people were set back while they sat in jail, all for the lack of a relatively small sum of money. There’s the dishwasher stopped on a traffic-ticket warrant who lost his job while waiting for trial; the jailed fast-food worker who couldn’t reach her landlord, was evicted, and lost her possessions, which were stacked on the curb.

“Every case of unnecessary pretrial incarceration is much more than simply an effective and unjustifiable waste of taxpayer money – it has direct and tragic human costs,” says Judge Truman Morrison III, who has sat on the Washington, D.C., Superior Court bench for 30 years and is PJI’s board chairman. Judge Morrison says that even though courts have in recent decades developed pretrial programs in which most defendants return to court without problem, the ways that the justice system sets bail haven’t changed. “Most judges spend their days saying, ‘$200, $500, $1,000.’ They have no idea if these people are getting out,” he says.

Bad food, insect bites, and missed school

As soon as Richardson held the new iPhone in her hands, she had mixed feelings, she recalls. She felt guilty about taking it from her neighbor, whom she saw every day. She remembered hearing that stolen iPhones are simple to track, so she feared being caught. As she stood in her house debating what to do next, two police officers came to her door. She handed them the phone. They handcuffed her and took her to central lockup.

Richardson was booked for felony burglary because the iPhone she’d taken was the newest version, with 32 gigabytes of memory, which put it over the $250 misdemeanor ceiling.

That evening, a magistrate judge set her bond, a $5,000 personal surety that allowed her to be released with the signature of a trusted person who pledged to pay the bond’s value if she didn’t return to court. Legally, that’s the reason judges set bond: to ensure that defendants return to court to face their charges.

Richardson remembers the judge summarizing the surety concept, saying that her older sister could simply come “sign her out” in the morning. But in New Orleans, surety bonds carry a $200 administrative fee. And Richardson’s family couldn’t afford that. So her sister came in the morning, but left without her.

Days turned into weeks. This familiar wait is known to New Orleans inmates as “D.A. time,” because state district attorneys have 60 days to decide whether to pursue a case.

“I thought they had forgot about me,” Richardson says, noting that the empty days were more difficult because of constant stomach upset that she attributes to the jail food and because of insect bites that covered her body for part of the time. She regularly begged deputies to see whether a court date had been scheduled, but they could offer nothing. Her sense of isolation was compounded because her mother couldn’t afford to purchase a prepaid phone card for her: “I didn’t talk to my mama at all.”

As the days mounted, Richardson – still a high school sophomore because she’d fallen behind after transferring schools nearly a dozen times in the wake of hurricane Katrina – missed crucial end-of-the-year school time. She would discover later that her family had moved while she was in jail. Without Richardson’s help baby-sitting her three younger brothers and toddler niece, her sister (a waitress) and her mother (who cleans antiques in a French Quarter store) had scrambled to find someone to watch the kids when they went to work. So they moved closer to an aunt who could baby-sit.

In the end, Richardson was never convicted. Instead, she was assigned to a diversion program, which required her to periodically check in with court staff for a few months. Then the district attorney halted prosecution, leaving her without a conviction on her record.

Richardson’s 51-day jail stay cost the city of New Orleans $1,142, part of the $10 million it pays each year to hold pretrial defendants, who occupy roughly half of the jail’s beds.

Bail guarantees return, not safety

Certainly, there’s reason to hold a suspected lawbreaker in jail – some inmates are held because they pose a danger to others. But, says Shima Baradaran, an associate professor at Brigham Young University Law School, that’s the exception, not the rule: “The overwhelming majority of people in our nation’s jails are not a threat to society. Most are detained for minor offenses and simply did not have the money to get out of jail.”

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liberty walker
8 years ago

And i thought it was only my town that was using the practice of pretrial detention and charging poor people fees they can’t afford. whatever happened to “and liberty for all”?