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Cover Story

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.

By Katy ReckdahlContributor / December 16, 2012

The unseen world of pretrial detention – in which most local jail inmates are held because they can't afford bail – is the cover story topic of the Dec. 17, 2012 issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine.

Richard Ross/AP/File

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New Orleans

The teenager opened her neighbor's unlocked car, grabbed the iPhone off the armrest and ran home, a few doors away in her downtown neighborhood here.

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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.

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