Unable to Pay $100 Bail, Homeless Man Dies in New Hampshire Jail
In their last conversation, Jeffrey Pendleton told his father that he was doing well, living in New Hampshire with a woman and working at a Burger King restaurant.
About four months later, a different story unfolded. Mr. Pendleton was homeless, and on March 13 he was found dead in a jail cell in Manchester, where he was being held for a misdemeanor because he could not pay the $100 bail.
“The police told me to talk to the detective in New Hampshire,” Mr. Pendleton’s father, Joseph, said Friday from his home in Palestine, Ark. “He said they did a cell check, and found him unconscious. Then two hours later he was dead.”
His family buried him last week in Palestine, but the authorities are still investigating how the 26-year old black man who had no known health problems died so suddenly.
“They said they did not find anything wrong with the body, that he shouldn’t have been dead,” the elder Mr. Pendleton said he was told by the coroner. “What they found was a healthy 26-year old man.”
Jennie V. Duval, the deputy chief medical examiner working on his case, said Mr. Pendleton’s autopsy was inconclusive and the official cause of death was awaiting the toxicology report, with blood test results not expected for four weeks.
“There was no naked eye evidence of trauma or disease,” Ms. Duval said. “We definitely ruled out foul play.”
Mr. Pendleton’s death has drawn attention to New Hampshire’s practice of putting in jail people who cannot make bail, often on misdemeanor charges.
As The New York Times has reported in a series of reports, specialists say the money-based bail system in the United States routinely means that poor defendants are punished before they get their day in court, often keeping them incarcerated longer than if they had been convicted right away.
Last month, the Justice Department sent a letter asking state chief justices and court administrators around the country to change their practices on fines and fees. The aim, it said, was to avoid the harm that falls on people who are unable to pay, and who “lose their jobs and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.”
The department urged the courts to consider alternatives to jail for defendants unable to pay fines and fees.
“Bail that is set without regard to defendants’ financial capacity can result in the incarceration of individuals not because they pose a threat to public safety or a flight risk, but rather because they cannot afford the assigned bail amount,” the letter said.
Mr. Pendleton was arrested on March 8 at about 10 p.m. at a house in Nashua, where the police were sent to help probation and parole officers. Officers discovered two warrants for Mr. Pendleton’s arrest for nonpayment of fines: one for disorderly conduct and the other for a city ordinance violation, said Capt. Eric Nordengren of the Nashua police.
Mr. Pendleton was taken to the Nashua police station, where they found a small quantity of marijuana, and then to the county jail in Manchester, Captain Nordengren said. In a preliminary appearance in Nashua District Court, his bail was set at $100, which he was unable to pay.
Then on March 13, Mr. Pendleton was found unconscious in his cell at 2:45 p.m. and could not be revived; he was pronounced dead at 3:19 p.m., the jail said in a statement. “There appeared no indication that Mr. Pendleton was in any form of distress,” David Dionne, the jail superintendent, said in a report by The Union Leader.
A court document said that Mr. Pendleton was to have been held on the “act prohibited” misdemeanor charge until a hearing on April 7.
“That’s approximately one month,” said Gilles Bissonnette, a director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire who had provided Mr. Pendleton with legal support. “At that point, he would have effectively served his sentence before he ever had an opportunity to contest the charge — an outcome that only a poor person would be confronted with.”
Mr. Pendleton’s ordeal also garnered some attention because he had previously won settlements worth thousands of dollars against two New Hampshire cities for run-ins with the police.
The City of Nashua agreed to pay $15,000 to settle a civil claim by the A.C.L.U. and Mr. Pendleton after he was arrested in 2014 for walking in a public park, according to a copy of the settlement provided by Mr. Bissonnette. About $10,315 went to Mr. Pendleton and the rest to the A.C.L.U. in New Hampshire.
The following year, the City of Hudson agreed to pay $37,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by the A.C.L.U. for Mr. Pendleton that said the police issued him a summons for panhandling, which they said was illegal. Mr. Pendleton was allotted about $7,000 of that money.
According to the Hudson lawsuit, Mr. Pendleton arrived in the Nashua area in 2009 and worked in low-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants. He had been homeless since a divorce in 2013, then lost his job and started sleeping in the woods.
Mr. Bissonnette said his office did not have significant contact with Mr. Pendleton after the cases were resolved with settlements. Asked why Mr. Pendleton was unable to pay the $100 bail last month, he said, “I don’t know that answer.”