Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

The History of Misdemeanor Bail

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

The History of Misdemeanor Bail

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Perchelle Richardson does not even know why she took the iPhone from her neighbor's car-it was an impulsive move that cost her two months of jail time and missed school.1 The New Orleans teen had no previous criminal record and her mom had given her a basic cell phone a few days earlier for her eighteenth birthday.2 But she liked the way iPhones looked and there one was, sitting on the arm rest in an unlocked car.3 Richardson took the phone and was arrested.4 The judge issued a $5000 personal surety, assuming Richardson would be released the next morning.5 But because her family could not absorb the $2000 administrative fee, Richardson spent fifty-one days behind bars.6 Already behind in her studies due to Hurricane Katrina, Richardson fell further behind in school, with nothing to study but the class worksheets delivered by her public defender.7 Because Richardson was the primary childcare provider for her family, alternate living arrangements had to be made for the other children.8 Her public defender attempted to get her released without paying the fee but had no luck with the judge.9 Eventually, Richardson's aunt pulled together the money to free her two weeks before her scheduled arraignment.10 Like many other low-income defendants, Richardson spent more time waiting in jail to visit a judge than she received in the sentence for her charge: the prosecutor eventually dropped the burglary charge against her.11 She probably expected to return home later the night of the arrest; if she had not been an indigent defendant, she might have.12 Almost two months in jail and these other major consequences all came about due to a misdemeanor.

Richardson is not alone in her experience. In Dallas, a grandmother spent two months in jail on $150,000 bail after being accused of shoplifting $105 worth of school clothes for her grandkids.13 A former National Guardsman who was unemployed, pregnant, and homeless, Kandace Edwards, allegedly forged a $75 check.14 She was given a $7500 bail that she could not pay and went to jail in Alabama.15 Seventy-year-old Betty Perry, who had never been in trouble with the law, was taken to jail for violating a city ordinance that required that she water her lawn.16 When an officer attempted to give her a ticket for this violation, she refused to take it since she could not afford to water her lawn.17 The officer then dragged her down her front steps straight to the local jail.18 Perry sustained injuries to her nose and elbows and left a trail of blood down her steps and on her door.19 She was completely frightened by being thrown in jail as she had never encountered anything like it.20 Eventually the charge was dismissed, but the damage was done.21 Perry is now frightened of the police and warns: "Don't ever say no when the police tell you do to [sic] something. . . . You've got to do what they tell you or they will hurt you."22 This pain and trauma all occurred over a misdemeanor.

Perry and Richardson's accounts provide some insight into the problem of misdemeanors in America. We do not know very much about misdemeanors nationally,23 but what we do know is troubling. Misdemeanors have grown in number and their consequences have escalated dramatically.24 The fact that an elderly woman without a criminal record can go to jail for a brown lawn and a teenager can go to jail for over fifty days for a minor first-time offense demonstrates the problem that we are facing in America.25 The number of misdemeanors processed in U.S. courts has risen from 5 million in 1972 to over 10.5 million today.26 In 2016, as many as 13.2 million misdemeanor cases were filed in the United States.27 This amounts to "an average of 4261 misdemeanor cases per 100,000 people."28 Of the 630,000 people in local jails in 2017, the overwhelming majority (443,000) were unconvicted individuals who could not afford bail, but would be safe to release,29 and about one-third (187,000) are people serving short sentences for misdemeanor violations. …

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