Dorton's 10 months in jail cost the city $30,000.

Angel Garcia was locked in jail for six months before the jury acquitted him. His wife had told her psychiatrist that she may have seen Garcia inappropriately touching their 8-year-old niece. The psychiatrist called the police. Garcia claimed that his niece and son had been fighting over a video game, and he was pulling her away from him. There were no other witnesses. Even though Garcia had no criminal history, Judge Nancy Davis set bail at $450,000. (Several San Francisco judges did not reply to interview requests for this story.)

His family visited the first few weeks in jail. It would always end in tears — his sister's, his wife's, his 6-year-old son's, his infant son's. So he asked them to stop coming.

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.

Garcia, 32, had been the breadwinner, holding down two jobs — custodial work at a movie theatre and manual labor at a farmers market. With him gone, Garcia's wife moved into her brother's house. She and her sons slept on the couch. The boys, missing their dad, lost their appetite and became anemic. The 6-year-old began struggling in school.

Once free, Garcia got his job at the farmers market back, but he had to start at the lowest pay grade, which was $5 an hour less than what he was making before. The family moved into a small apartment, which they share with two other people. Five months after the May verdict, the 6-year-old still asks his dad, "When are you gonna leave again?"

"It feels like I'm starting my life all over again," Garcia says. "Starting from zero. Everything's different."

The legal system treated Garcia as a guilty man before it proved him innocent.

"That we're going to punish a person before they're even convicted to keep them off the street — I believe that's offensive to the presumption of innocence," says Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "If your freedom depends on how much money you have — a fact that has no correlation to the charges against you — that system begins with a fundamental inequality based on wealth."

Dorton, Frazier, Garcia, and many others ended up stuck in jail not because of any single lapse in the justice system, but because of a convergence of factors. Law enforcement efforts to make San Francisco less appealing for out-of-town criminals led to an across-the-board increase in bail rates in the late 1990s. Lobbying from the bail bond industry pressured state politicians to reject legislative efforts to encourage OR releases, which would cut into bondsman profits. Prosecutors' habit of throwing a filing cabinet's worth of charges at a defendant to induce a plea bargain led to stacked bail. Public defenders' long case lists led to longer court proceedings. Cops gave the accusers the benefit of the doubt, and the judges gave the cops the same thing. The lack of background information provided to judges at arraignment made OR releases less worthwhile gambles for them.

"They treated me like I was already guilty," says Dorton. "Like you're nothing. Nothing but paperwork."

To Scott MacDonald, criminal justice policy is all about managing risk. In any pretrial detention system, there is the risk of jailing innocent people and setting dangerous people loose. And the latter tends to make headlines more often than the former.

"The problem with the system is that we're risk-averse," says MacDonald, Santa Cruz County's chief probation officer. "If we ran our lives the way we traditionally run the justice system, we probably wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. The culture is, 'When in doubt, lock them up.'"

MacDonald was assistant chief when Santa Cruz faced an overcrowded jail crisis in 2004. There was talk of constructing a new complex — an expensive endeavor. From working in the juvenile justice department in the '90s, MacDonald had seen data-driven risk assessment policy used to keep youth defendants out of detention before trial. Research into the defendant's background helped officials determine which ones were most likely to skip a court date. So, in 2005, MacDonald ushered a similar risk assessment tool into the adult system, using evidence-based methods. With the jail problem becoming a fiscal problem, he faced little resistance.

So when a defendant is booked into Santa Cruz County jail, the Probation Department interviews him, calls his employer and relatives, studies his criminal history, and contacts the victim. The investigation focuses on the risk factors in a defendant's life: Is he employed; does he have people looking out for him; does he have a stable residence; does he have a family he provides for; does the victim fear his release?

Officials enter the facts into a formula, which spits out a score. That score determines the type of recommendation the probation department makes to the judge. In addition to OR and detention, there are multiple levels of supervised release — including daily phone check-ins, mandatory drug counseling, and electronic monitoring — overseen by the probation department.

In the years since, the jail population in Santa Cruz's main facility dropped by 25 percent. The Sheriff's Department closed one of its jails, saving the county around $1 million a year. Fewer than 5 percent of released defendants were charged with another crime before their court date. And 91 percent of them appeared for trial — though most successful bail bond companies secure court appearances at a rate several percentage points higher.

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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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