Barred from Freedom: How Pretrial Detention Ruins Lives

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.

Angel Garcia, unable to pay the $450,000 bail, sat in jail for six months before he was acquitted at trial. His family lost their apartment and his kids became ill.
Michael Short
Angel Garcia, unable to pay the $450,000 bail, sat in jail for six months before he was acquitted at trial. His family lost their apartment and his kids became ill.

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.

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Paul the Cab Driver
Paul the Cab Driver

Dorton was charged with pimping, which is arranging sexual liaisons for money.  It is totally asinine that this is even a crime.  As George Carlin once pointed out, it is not illegal to have sex with someone, and it is not illegal to give them money; so why is it illegal to give someone sex for money?

He was also charged with assault, with absolutely no witnesses to what happened.  

The woman charging him was a completely disreputable liar whose testimony fell completely apart on the witness stand.  

This brings up a number of questions:  Why was this man charged with anything at all?  Why did the prosecutors office not see that this case was a complete tissue of lies from the beginning? why did the judge not just throw this whole case out completely?  Why is it that the woman was not charged (as far as we know) with filing a false report?  And lastly, and most important of all, why do we citizens allow prosecutors to get away with this kind of nastiness with absolutely zero consequences whatsoever?

It's high time we stop these massive injustices in our system.  The prosecutor in this case should be forced to resign, and prosecuted himself!


One of the major components of the American Legislative Exchange Council is their "public safety task force" - a lobby of representatives of private prison and bail bonds corporations that writes laws and pays state legislators to pass them. Some of their successful efforts have been "tough on crime" laws like mandatory minimum sentencing, bail stacking and pretrial detention. They also attack funding for diversion programs and public defenders, leading to high case loads, inadequate defenses, more (and more draconian) plea deals and long prison terms based on poverty.

Whatever the verdict, the bail bonds corporations make out like bandits for essentially no work, since people show up for their court dates 91% of the time even when no bond is posted. Once a convict is sentenced, the private prisons rob us both ways by charging full price for goods and services made with prison labor paid at the Bangladesh-worthy rate of twenty cents an hour, all the while collecting subsidies and tax breaks in the guise of vocational training.

For more info:

Follow the money.

nancytung 1 Like

If you are poor you get a free lawyer.

If you are rich, you have to pay for the lawyer and you dont get your bond back if you are found NOT guilty.

Is that fair?

patfan34 1 Like

@nancytung Your lack of understanding of the judicial system is shocking. Everyone has a right to an attorney meaning if you can't afford one then you are provided one. So you believe poor people are less deserving of a professional defense than rich people who can afford it? Also, nobody, rich or poor, gets their bond back. Maybe if you read a little closer you would have caught that...

albert 1 Like

You know an article is unfairly biased against the commercial bail industry when it buries the following comment on the last page:


"While the risk assessment wouldn't necessarily set guys like Dorton free, it could ensure them a fair shot based on facts."


This whole anti-bail article is based around Dorton's anecdotal case and it turns out that even if a risk assessment OR program was in place, Dorton may not have qualified because of the seriousness of the charges against him.


Guess what, high conviction rates clearly show that most defendants are guilty of the crimes they are charged with.  The presumption of innocence does not mean that society has to be stupid and release mass number of defendants on OR so they can dodge court and punishment for their crimes.  

patfan34 1 Like

@albert Or if you read the article closely at all you could surmise that the litany of charges that prosecutors throw at defendants helps trump up that number. Trumped up charges to pressure the charged into pleading guilty = high conviction rates = district attorneys keeping their jobs when they trumpet those numbers in elections.

hplovecraft topcommenter

Reading this article ; I thought I'd picked up an issue

of SFBayGuardian , by mistake....

sfwtrail 1 Like

Excellent and important article. Thanks for the work that went into this.

I couldn't help notice that it was Judge Susan Breall who set the bail at $450,000, in effect sentencing a man not convicted of any crime to jail for months on end (10 months in this case) with scant reason to do so.

Judge Breall was also the judge who handed down the ruling that forced Sheriff Mirkarimi to move out of his homw, cost his family their income, and separated them for months on end.

She also has failed to publicly disclose (although she may have in documents filed at court but not posted online) that she is the Board member of a nonprofit that seeks to provide legal advice to attorneys representing purported victims of violence at home. 


barryeisenberg 1 Like

 @sfwtrail I also noticed the bias that seems to surround Judge Breall. She must be quite a piece of work.


As with any long-entrenched and privileged group, ethics in the insular judicial branch is a dicey matter indeed. I learned this firsthand back in the 70's when my family underwent its tragically life-altering experience with the family court bureaucracy. It seems like only the names of the players have changed in all this time. The SF Superior Court, as this excellent article depicts, continues blundering along in its highly destructive ways and heaven help anyone forced into contact with it.  

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