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Jailed without conviction: Behind bars for lack of money

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"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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