"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.

Rising crime rates through the 1970s and '80s, however, shifted this paradigm, as law enforcement officials argued that judges must also consider the potential danger a defendant poses to society. States, including California, amended their laws so that public safety would also be a primary factor in pretrial decisions. Congress followed suit with the Bail Reform Act of 1984, rolling back previous reforms.

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.

As criminologist John Goldkamp wrote in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1985, "The social and historical shift in the recent decades, away from poverty and civil liberty concerns and toward a climate marked more by heightened public fear of crime and 'law and order' politics may explain the evolution of the danger-oriented agenda of bail and pretrial detention practices."

Within three days of a person's booking into county jail, he stands before a judge for an arraignment hearing, where the judge releases him on his own recognizance, sets a bail amount, or denies him bail eligibility. To make this decision, the judge reviews the person's criminal history, any past cases of skipping court dates, and the police report of the current crime.

The bail amount is often based on the charge. Judges usually refer to the county's bail schedule, which suggests figures for different crimes. Those like Dorton who have been charged with multiple counts receive particularly high bail because of "bail stacking," the judicial practice of combining the bail amounts for each of the charges. Those without the cash or property to put up as collateral must go to a commercial bail bondsman, who will post the bail for, generally, a 10 percent fee.

Many don't have enough money for that. In San Francisco, judges have the option to order probation-style supervised release for those defendants, through the nonprofit San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project. This alternative is limited. Because the organization operates independently, without a law enforcement arm, it does not have "the teeth," says the program's Chief Operating Officer Allison McCovey, to risk supervising those accused of violent or sex crimes. From January through September 2012, judges have referred 286 defendants to SFPDP. Program workers interviewed them for around half an hour, then sent the judge a report detailing the person's community ties. The report is purely informational and does not make any recommendation. Of those 286 cases, judges approved supervised release for 33.

Anthony Dorton had never been in jail before. The cramped dormitories, the regimented days, the inevitable conflicts with other inmates, the absence of privacy and quality food — it all hit him like a first round uppercut. On day one, he figured he'd be free soon. "They've got nothing on me but this bogus-ass story," he kept telling himself, as he replayed the previous two weeks in his mind.

Twelve days before, he met the woman who would accuse him of assault and pimping. His girlfriend introduced them. The woman (the DA's office requested that her name not be disclosed due to the nature of the accusation) said she had recently become homeless. Dorton told her she could crash at his apartment for a couple nights, while she sorted things out. But a few days turned into over a week, which was longer than Dorton anticipated. He dropped hints — "So what's your plans?" And she'd tell him she was just waiting for a call back from her sister or a friend. On the 11th day, Dorton told the woman that she had to leave. He dropped her off in the Mission.

Around 3 a.m., the woman called him, he says. She was crying, saying something about a guy she had gotten into an altercation with. Dorton had an idea how she made her money, but didn't want to pry. The woman asked him to pick her up. He refused and hung up. She kept calling. He picked up on the fourth or fifth try. She was pissed, he recalls, screaming at him and threatening to call the police if he did not come get her.

"The police?" he said, bewildered. "Bitch, call 'em. What the fuck you gon' tell the police?"

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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.


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?


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.  


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

of SFBayGuardian , by mistake....


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. 



@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 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.


 @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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