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Jailed without conviction: Behind bars for lack of money

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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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