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Jailed without conviction: Behind bars for lack of money

About 10 million people are jailed each year for crimes large and small. Most – two-thirds of the 750,000 in jail on any given day – stay long periods without conviction at great cost to the public and to themselves because they can't afford bail.

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And for the local jurisdictions who pay for those jail beds, needless pretrial incarceration costs billions each year, according to Justice Department estimates.

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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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