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Jailed without conviction: Behind bars for lack of money

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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.

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.

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