Leslie Chew spent his childhood working long days next to his father on the oil rigs of southern Texas. No school meant he never learned to read or write. Now in his early 40s, he’s a handyman, often finding aBut he got by — until one night in December 2008 when the station wagon got cold, and he changed the course of his life.
“Well, I stole some blankets to try to stay warm,” he says quietly. “I walked in and got them and turned around and walked right back out of the store. [The security guard] said, ‘Excuse me, sir, come here. Are you planning to pay for these?’ I said, ‘No, sir. I don’t have no money.’ That’s when he arrested me right then.”
When I first spoke to Chew last summer, he’d been inside the Lubbock County jail since the night he was arrested: 185 days, more than six months.
Chew is like one of more than a half-million inmates sitting in America’s jails — not because they’re dangerous or a threat to society or because a judge thinks they will run. It’s not even because they are guilty; they haven’t been tried yet.
More Stories In This Series
PART 2: Inmates Who Can’t Make Bail Face Stark Options Jan. 22, 2010
PART 3: Bondsman Lobby Targets Pretrial Release Programs Jan. 22, 2010
They are here because they can’t make bail — sometimes as little as $50. Some will wait behind bars for as long as a year before their cases make it to court. And it will cost taxpayers $9 billion this year to house them.
On this day that I met him, Chew’s bail is $3,500. He would need to leave that much as a cash deposit with the court to leave jail. Or he could pay a bail bondsman a $350 nonrefundable fee to do it for him. If he had either amount, he could stand up and walk out the door right now. But he doesn’t.
The money, says Chew, “is like a million dollars to me.”
When Chew headed down the grocery aisle and put four $30 blankets under his arm, he set in motion a process almost unique to the United States that rewards the wealthy and punishes the poor. And, NPR has found, it exists almost solely to protect the interests of a powerful bail bonding industry.
Leslie ChewEnlarge image
Leslie Chew, in Lubbock County Jail for theft, said his $3,500 bail was “like a million dollars to me.”
The result is that people with money get out. They go back to their jobs and their families, pay their bills and fight their cases. And according to the Justice Department and national studies, those with money face far fewer consequences for their crimes.
People without money stay in jail and are left to take whatever offer prosecutors feel like giving them. place to sleep in the back of his old station wagon.