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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For example, at first glance it may seem as though an adherence to tradition reigns in Harris County, Texas, where magistrates release only about 5 percent of people on the nonfinancial personal signature of a third party. But judicial observers say that there was a time when release rates were higher in the Houston area. They trace the start of a decline in release rates to an ad campaign financed a decade ago by a conservative lobbyist group. Full-page newspaper ads showed photos of defendants who'd been given bail, with headlines such as "Your Tax Dollars Released This Person."Skip to next paragraph
Carol Oeller, who has headed Harris County Pretrial Services for 13 years and worked in the field for 33 years, still believes that she's providing a crucial service. Judges trust her agency's supervision and rely on the information her agency provides to make their bonding decisions, even though they follow it only 30 percent of the time, she says.
Most people see common sense on both sides of the issue, Ms. Oeller says, recalling how she had heard a bail bondsman say that if someone is willing to pay him to release an inmate, it's an indicator of lower risk. "It makes intuitive sense," she says. And she has overheard others talk about public safety and how dangerous inmates shouldn't be able to buy their way out of jail. "And people will say, 'Yeah, you're right.' "
Pretrial services help judges assess risk
In New Orleans, where a pretrial services program began last spring, the operative posture seems to be one of caution.
The biggest worry for any judge is that he or she will release someone out on the street who will reoffend or turn violent. Those cases can haunt a judge: the armed robber who's released and shoots his next victim, the mentally ill defendant who goes home and kills his mother.
To date, no one has held a press conference decrying a judge because he did not release a defendant who posed no risk to the public.
Chief Magistrate Judge Gerard Hansen, who's presided on the Orleans Parish Court for 38 years, says that he's grateful for the additional information he gets from the Vera Institute of Justice, the justice policy nonprofit that runs the new pretrial services program for his court.
The district attorney has for years provided the magistrate with criminal records of defendants, he says. "But unless I asked the defendant directly, I didn't have any information about employment, stability, and mental health or whether he was living with family or children," Judge Hansen says. He wasn't able – as Vera staff is – to get reliable, independently confirmed employment and family situation information before the magistrate hearing, he says.
Recently, Vera began screening defendants for diversion programs right away. If that had been in place earlier this year, Richardson might have been released immediately, with orders to check in the next day at the district attorney's office.
Still, there are times, Hansen says, when Vera's staff will tell him that someone ranks, say, a 7 as a risk for release, but he believes that they pose a higher risk, maybe closer to an 11. At that point, he defers to himself.
"I'll follow my instincts," Hansen says. "I've been doing it longer. And I've been living here longer."
• The editor of this article received a fellowship – involving paid travel to New Orleans and a two-day course on the topic of pretrial reform – sponsored by the Center on Media,Crime & Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.