Pin It

Barred from Freedom: How Pretrial Detention Ruins Lives 

Wednesday, Nov 21 2012
Comments


Illustration by Anthony Freda


He lost his apartment and his car. Most of his possessions were in a dump somewhere. His debt was in the thousands. The brother he provided for was sent into transitional housing.

Anthony Dorton was finally out of jail. But his path to freedom had come with a cost.

He would re-enter society on an August night, relieved that the San Francisco jury believed his side of the story. He couldn't erase the anger, though, hardened and entrenched by 10 months locked up for a crime he didn't commit and hadn't been convicted of.

A sheriff's deputy swung open the bulky steel door.

"Ten months and just like that, huh?" Dorton muttered.

The deputy patted his back and said, "You should just be happy you're free."

Dorton clenched his jaw. The deputy walked him into a small room to change clothes. Dorton traded his inmate orange for the white T-shirt and blue jeans that had been waiting for him. They still fit, even though the jailhouse workouts had given him some added bulk. "If I gotta be in jail," he'd told himself during his stay, "I might as well look like it."

Soon he was outside in the chilly darkness. He carried a plastic bag heavy with belongings accumulated in his cell: books, magazines, and papers filled with notes on the auto mechanic business he planned to start once he got out. He looked skyward and took a deep breath. He'd forgotten what fresh air smelled like.

The legal system had worked out the way it was designed to. A woman accused Dorton of assaulting and pimping her. The prosecution's case fell apart when jurors learned that the woman had no marks on her face a few hours after the assault supposedly occurred, and that she had continued working as a self-employed prostitute in the months leading up to the trial. The jury acquitted Dorton on the assault allegation and hung on the pimping count. The district attorney chose not to re-try.

Now Dorton was as free as the day before he first stepped into the stark, gray Hall of Justice. Most everything else in his reality, however, had drastically changed.

Judge Gerardo Sandoval had set his bail at $300,000, which meant Dorton's freedom hinged on paying a bondsman a $30,000 non-refundable fee. The 23-year-old, who had recently been laid off from his job installing cable for Comcast, didn't have it.

So he lingered behind bars, awaiting the chance to prove his innocence, as the court process lumbered forward. Jail meant no job applications or picking up unemployment checks, no making rent or car payments, and, by extension, eviction and repossession. By the time justice was served, Dorton's life was in ruins.

It's the filthy secret of the American judicial system: A majority of county jail inmates have not been convicted of any crime. They sleep and eat among the proven criminals, and are treated as such, packed in crowded barracks and transported in chains, because they did not have enough money. More than 60 percent of America's jail population has not been convicted, more than 70 percent in California. In San Francisco, 83 percent of county jail inmates have not stood trial. (The DA's office doesn't keep stats on what percentage of those charged end up convicted.)

"There are many people that, keeping them in custody doesn't improve our public safety," says District Attorney George Gascón. "Many of those people are only in there because they could not afford to pay bail."

Those inmates are casualties of a bail system in which freedom is determined not just by a person's perceived risk to society but by the wealth to their name. It is an institutional flaw that has existed in America since the colonists brought over the concept of bail from England, where it had been law for centuries. The Founding Fathers wrote in the Eighth Amendment that "excessive bail shall not be required," but for decades public officials and reform advocates have stretched and twisted the exact meaning of "excessive."

"We see lives destroyed on a regular basis," says Carmen Aguirre, an attorney at the Public Defender's Office.

People who live paycheck to paycheck lose their paycheck and all that comes with it. Some lose their homes. Others lose custody of their children. Many see their family struggle to make ends meet. Banished to constitutional limbo, they see the world proceeding as their lives remain locked down and frozen.

"It's a trap," says Dorton. "It's wrong. It's cruel. It's just hella fucked up."


The basic purpose of bail is to ensure that a person shows up to court. But in order to achieve this, the system must address two conflicting goals: to support the maxim that a person is innocent until proven guilty and to keep off the streets those defendants perceived by law enforcement to be dangerous. Debates over American bail policy have been debates over shifting the weight of this complicated see-saw, from protecting the public to protecting the rights of the accused.

The birth of the modern bail reform movement came in 1927, when sociologist Arthur Lawton Beeley published a study on pretrial detention in Chicago. He concluded that the monetary bail practice had produced a system where freedom was primarily based on wealth. Academic studies over the next few decades furthered Beeley's findings, and by the 1960s reforms emerged.

"The rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts," U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy told the Congressional Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights and Improvements in Judicial Machinery in 1964. "And in no area is this more evident than in the matter of bail."

In 1961, the Manhattan Bail Project sought to quantitatively measure a defendant's flight risk in an effort to increase the rate of releases on the defendant's own recognizance (OR), where the accused just has to promise to show up for his court date. Following this trend, the Bail Reform Act of 1966 declared that defendants in non-capital crimes (all but the most heinous murders) had a right to be released on OR. If a judge determined that additional conditions were necessary to ensure the person's court appearance, then the judge had to select the least restrictive conditions possible, such as travel limitations, home detention, or monetary bond. Pretrial incarceration would be the last resort, used after a judge deemed all other alternatives insufficient. The legislation ruled that a judge's only pretrial goal was securing a defendant's appearance in court.

About The Author

Albert Samaha

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular