How Does Bail and Bonding Work in the American Justice System?

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Whether on the news or in a TV drama, you’ve heard the term “bail” before. But what does it actually mean? Understanding how bail is set and paid is essential if you ever find yourself charged with a crime.

Bail Basics

Bail is essentially a financial promise that you will show up in court. In exchange, you’ll be released from custody instead of being held in jail until your court date.

People who might have the resources and motivation to flee the justice system are considered flight risks and will usually be asked to pay bail in order to be released from custody.

In the most straightforward scenario, you would pay your bail to the court in cash and then be released. If you show up to court as promised, you’ll get the money back.

Can You Be Held Without Bail?

In a word, yes. Law enforcement can hold anyone in jail for up to 36-48 hours without being brought before the court. If you are being charged with a crime, you’ll attend either an arraignment or a bail hearing, where a judge will decide the amount of bail to be set.

People who are considered a flight risk or have failed to show up to court in the past might not be granted bail. If the defendant was already on parole, the judge will likely not grant bail. More severe crimes, such as murder, may also result in being held without bail.

How Is Bail Set?

Bail is determined by a number of factors, including the severity of the crime, whether this is the first offense, and if the defendant is considered to be a threat to society.

A minor crime, such as a nonviolent petty theft, might result in bail being set at a standard $500. However, for risky, violent, or serious offenders, bail could be much, much higher.

For example, when actress Lori Loughlin was charged in the college admissions scandal, her bail was set at $1 million because she was considered a flight risk due to her personal fortune.

As an alternative to a bail hearing or arraignment, an individual might pay a set amount according to a jailhouse bail schedule after being arrested.

Bail Bond

If you don’t have enough ready money to pay your bail, then you’ll need to talk to a bail bond agency. These companies take on the promise to pay a defendant’s bail for a premium–often 10% of the original bail amount.

A bail bondsman will likely ask for a third-party guarantor, such as a family member, or additional collateral in the form of real estate, stocks, or other non-liquid assets.

For example, if Mary’s bail is set at $5,000 but she can’t come up with that much money, a bail bondsman would accept $500 up front as well as an agreement to secure Mary’s engagement ring as collateral.

If Mary shows up in court as promised, then the bail bondsman keeps the $500 and Mary gets to keep her engagement ring. But if she skips court, the bondsman can sell her ring or use it as leverage to get Mary to pay up the $4500 she owes.