Locked up for being poor in South Carolina jails

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) - For some very poor defendants an inability to pay bond may mean more time in jail before a trial and a higher chance of pleading guilty.

People arrested and charged with a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty or until they admit the crime in court.  Once arrested and taken to jail, each defendant faces a magistrate judge inside the detention center who determines whether to set bond.

In Greenville County, that process happens four times a day.

Under the law, each defendant is entitled to a personal recognizance bond.  That means the accused is released from jail on the promise that they'll return for each court appearance.  But if the judge thinks the accused will not show up or presents an "unreasonable danger to the community" there may be extra restrictions.

The judge could refuse to set bond at all of the charge is serious enough or there can be special restrictions called an "appearance" or "surety" bond.  Normally a defendant can get the money for a cash bond by going to a bail bondsman who will charge a fee between 5% and 15%.

For someone who is very poor, even a small cash bond may be too expensive to pay.  So while most people would be sitting at home, visiting family and going to work, very poor defendants sit in jail.

Sometimes, poor defendants remain in jail for months charged with a crime they did not commit.  Sometimes those defendants admit guilt simply as a way to get out of jail.

Ken Bowens said he got into the wrong car and it cost him his freedom.

Bowens was in the passenger seat, he said it was his nephew's car, when police stopped the car at a Greenville intersection in April 2014.

According to the police report, the officer searched the car and found one rock of crack cocaine.  Both the driver and Bowens were arrested and charged with possession.

Both went to jail.

The case against Bowens was dismissed at a preliminary hearing because of a lack of evidence.  Still, without being convicted of a crime, Bowens spent 68 days in behind bars.

Greenville County public defender John Mauldin said it's common for defendants like Bowens to spend time in jail, not for breaking the law, but because they're too poor to post bond.

"Poor people, when they are arrested, will stay in jail because of the inability to post a money bond," Mauldin said.

A judge set Bowen's bond at $10,000 which, he later said, he could not afford.

Bowen's public defender made a motion for a lower bond but under Greenville County court rules, that process takes at least 45 days, and sometimes longer.

"If the person can't make the bond that the magistrate set they are going to be in jail for a couple of months almost every time," Mauldin said.

That extra time behind bars comes at taxpayer expense.  Every person in the Greenville County detention center costs at least $40 a day. Solicitor Walt Wilkins said his office reviews as many as 90 bond reduction requests every month.

The 7 News investigation also proved that people who spend more time in jail because they can't post bond are more likely to end up with a guilty verdict.  In some cases, a guilty plea is the fastest way for some defendants to get out of jail.

The study compiled more than three thousand cases, by combining records from the Greenville County detention center with court records for every person charged with one of five felony charges over a three year period.

The defendants analyzed were accused of crack or meth possession, marijuana possession with intent to distribute, enhanced shoplifting or larceny.

The study only looked at cases in which a judge set a cash bond.

By separating those who are able to pay up and get out of jail within three days from those who spent at least a month behind bars, the trend was clear.  Those who could afford to get out of jail on bond, could afford a better outcome.

"They're not eating three hots in a cot in a jail cell. They're sitting at home on their bond, they're sitting at home going about their daily lives so they have no incentive to come in here and sustain that criminal conviction," Wilkins said.

The Solicitor did not agree that people who are too poor to pay bond, on average, spent more time behind bars.  He said his office prioritized cases in which the defendant was still in jail.  Plus, he said any defendant is free to request a "speedy trial" and that his office would be happy to oblige anyone who did so.

Wilkins said that option to delay a trial, for those out of jail on bond, could favor the defense.

The 7News study found that's true.

For those released from jail within three days, about 20% of those accused were later found "not guilty"  Of those in jail more than a month, that success rate is cut in half.

The study controlled for race, gender and age and found that only length of time in jail correlated with trial outcomes.

"If they post bond, then the incentive is to delay the case. They want to delay the case because witnesses stories change, cops move out of town, things change the case gets stale," Wilkins said.

"The longer a person stays in jail, the more likely they are to say look I want to get this over with I want to go back to my family," Mauldin said.

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