RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

More than half a million people are sitting in the nation's jails this morning because they can't afford bail. They're at a stage where a judge has ruled they may be released before trial if they can come up with the money. Most can't. And it's costing taxpayers $9 billion a year to feed and house and cloth them. NPR's Laura Sullivan has been examining bail in the United States, and she spoke with one man in the Bronx, a conversation that shows sometimes the record on guilt and innocence depends on what an accused can afford.

LAURA SULLIVAN: I first met Shadu Green seven months ago in a place officially called the Vernon C. Bain Center. But every judge, layer and inmate in New York knows that this is The Boat - a giant, floating jail docked just across the river from Rikers Island. Sometimes, when the wind blows, you can feel it list just a little.

In a day room, Shadu Green is still wearing the T-shirt and jeans he had on when he was arrested three weeks earlier.

Mr. SHADU GREEN: Every day is horrible. I try not to show emotion because in here, you show emotions, they eat you alive.

SULLIVAN: Green is charged with a series of misdemeanors after getting pulled over in his car. But he doesn't have to be here. He's been granted bail. A judge has decided he's likely to show up for court when he's supposed to, if he can post a thousand dollar cash deposit. A bondsman has offered to post the money for him, for a $400 nonrefundable fee.

Green doesn't have $1,000. He doesn't have $400. He doesn't have $.44 to mail a letter to his mom asking for bail money.

So like thousands of inmates here and hundreds of thousands nationwide, Shadu Green is left with two options: He can fight his case, but he'll have to do it from here, behind bars. Or he can plead guilty and take the 60-day sentence prosecutors are offering him so he can go home. The only problem, he says, is that he believes he's not guilty.

Mr. GREEN: If you don't have money, you have to stay here. And that's the sad part about it. It's ruining your life, 'cause it's like, either way you have to be here.

SULLIVAN: Shadu Green is 25, skinny, with a nervous way of keeping an eye on the rest of the room. Court records show he was arrested June 7th. Officers say he was belligerent, assaulted them and resisted arrest. Green says he was pulled over for no reason and attacked by the officers.

Green wants a jury to decide who was right and who was wrong. He also knows a guilty plea is not helpful to the job prospects of a 25-year-old black man with a previous record, a minor weapons charge from several years ago. But as he stands here, you can hear him start to waver. He's done almost half the 60 days already.

Mr. GREEN: I cannot be here. I got my daughter, and that's what I'm thinking about. I have to do what I got to do.

SULLIVAN: The internal debate Green is waging at this very moment is one that national studies show usually works in prosecutors' favor. Defendants waiting in jail are far more likely to plead guilty than defendants waiting on the outside for their cases to wind their way through the system. They're also far more likely to receive and accept harsher punishments.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson declined NPR's request to talk about bail. But Marty Horn - at the time, the commissioner of New York City's jails -says he sees this scenario play out every day as he walks the hallways of Rikers Island.

Unidentified Man #1: Day sweep(ph).

(Soundbite of doors slamming)

Mr. MARTY HORN (Former Commission of New York City Jails): Individuals who insist on their innocence and refuse to plead guilty get held. But the people who choose to plead guilty get out faster.

Hey, Captain.

Unidentified Man: How we doing? How are you?

Mr. HORN: I'm good, man, how are you?

Unidentified Man #2: All right, sir.

Mr. HORN: So this guy is in this predicament, right? So, if he insists on his innocence, he sits here.

SULLIVAN: Does that seem fair?

Mr. HORN: I think our system unfortunately forces them to make a difficult choice.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

SULLIVAN: As I'm about to leave the day room, Shadu Green stops me. He says he's decided he's going to fight his case. He's already lost his apartment and his job. Still, he doesn't sound too convincing.

Mr. GREEN: I try not to, you know, let it get my mind and emotions get discouraged. It's hard, but you just have to do it.

SULLIVAN: A week later, though, Green was still sticking it out. He called me collect after bartering with the inmates who control the phones.

Mr. GREEN: Every day is something different or something new, especially at night. So, I mean, you just got to, you know, mind your business and, you know, hopefully, wake up the next day.

SULLIVAN: But by mid-July, nearly a month and a half after arriving at The Boat, Green called to say he was done. He was going to take the deal.

Mr. GREEN: Honestly, I just want to go home.

SULLIVAN: He says he's been crying a lot. He misses his daughter. His baby's mother can't pay the bills without his income.

Mr. GREEN: It's just that my family's out there. And it's going to make it seem like I'm trying to be greedy for just sitting in here.

SULLIVAN: Yet a few minutes later, he sounds like he still can't quite bring himself to accept the plea deal.

Mr. GREEN: If I take this plea, that's another charge on my record for nothing. They get to win, and at the end of the day I...

(Soundbite of dial tone)

SULLIVAN: Something happens in the background, and the phone goes dead. When Green calls back a while later, he's vague about what just happened. He says he doesn't want to talk about it. He sounds defeated.

Mr. GREEN: If I was wrong, I'd just be doing my time, because I just want to get it over with. But it's hard. 'Cause I've got to sit here, I've got to take all this, all because I want to prove a point, you know?

(Soundbite of dial tone)

SULLIVAN: I lose him again. I wonder what choice Shadu Green will make.

Then, a few days later, just as he is about to accept the prosecutors' deal, a small miracle happens for Shadu Green. His baby's mother scrapes together the last of the $400 she's been saving to pay the bail bondsman. And several hours later, Green is free.

Now, four months after that...

Mr. GREEN: I'm free, alive and free. That's the best thing.

SULLIVAN: Green is sitting on a park bench in the Bronx in a light November rain. An hour earlier, a judge postponed his case again for another two months.

He opens an old plastic umbrella and holds it over my head instead of his own. Its edge frames Yankee Stadium just down the hill - the old one, where, years ago, his grandmother took him before she died.

Mr. GREEN The whole time we were eating popcorn and sodas, and I miss my grandmother a lot.

SULLIVAN: Was that the first time you'd been?

Mr. GREEN: First and last, probably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: As he talks, it's hard to imagine Green surviving these months behind bars, waiting for his day in court. At this point, he would have been locked up four times longer than the punishment prosecutors were offering him.

Mr. GREEN: Being in jail makes you feel like there's no use to fighting. You're going to be away from your family, and that's just that.

SULLIVAN: Green has no money, no job, no place to live, and his case is months from being resolved. But for the first time since I met him, he seems almost invigorated.

Mr. GREEN: I'm willing to wait as long as five years if I have to, because I know I'm going to win. That's just how I feel.

SULLIVAN: Shadu Green may be guilty, or he may be innocent. But the point, he says, is that it's no longer up to the prosecutors, the police, the jail system or even just his willingness to stay in jail. It will be up to 12 New Yorkers he's never met. And the cost of that centuries-old privilege for Shadu Green, it turns out, was $400.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear Laura's first story on bail in the U.S. at our Web site, npr.org.

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