Legal Finance: How Do Bail Bonds Work?



“Someone is arrested in the United States every three seconds,” according to The Intercept. Every arrest culminates in one of three ways: the judge releases the individual on their own recognizance (an official understanding that the defendant will appear in court), the person is released on bail, or the individual in question remains in jail until his or her court date.

Bail is the option that leaves Americans with the most questions. What is bail? Who sets bail and how? What resources are available to pay off bail?

What is Bail?

Bail “money ensures that the defendant returns to court for the remainder of the criminal justice process,” Money Crashers writes. It is a set amount that acts as an insurance policy between the arrestee and the court. After paying bail, the defendant is free to go until they are scheduled to appear in court.

Bail amounts are determined based on several different factors. First, the judge will take the severity of the crime into account. Nonviolent, petty misdemeanors typically involve bail fees of $500 on average. More serious crimes come along with much larger bail amounts to pay off and finance. In addition to the severity of the crime, the judge may also consider the defendant’s employment status, the defendant’s criminal history (or lack thereof), his or her ties to the community, and the likelihood that the defendant will attempt to flee in order to avoid sentencing for his or her crimes.

Some states have set amounts for particular crimes, removing some of the ambiguity of bail amounts and finances.

Under certain circumstances, defendants may be subject to a bail hearing. Bail hearings may help determine the amount of bail owed, or a bail hearing may determine whether the subject will be granted bail at all.

What Are Bail Bonds?

In many cases, bail for more serious crimes may be considerably high, and difficult to easily pay off in cash or in a single payment. Arrestees may only have a small portion of the funds necessary to post bail. Bail bond services help their clients bridge this gap and finance their release.

How does this work? According to Investopedia, “Bail bondsmen, also called bail bond agents, provide written agreements to criminal courts to pay the bail in full if the defendants whose appearances they guarantee fail to appear on their trial dates.” Bail bond services typically charge a small percentage of the bail amount. Although many states do not have a set amount, clients generally pay 8 to 10% of their bail amount. Federal cases may come with a slightly higher percentage, generally about 15%. This percentage pays for professional bail bonds and the work that goes into preparing and filing them.

For the remaining portion of bail bonds, a bail bond agency will collect collateral. Collateral can take many different forms. The most common forms are stocks, real estate, and valuable personal assets.

What Types Of Bonds Are There?

There are two main types of bail bonds, a criminal bail bond and a civil bail bond.

A criminal bail bond describes bail bonds used to finance criminal defense cases. Defendants can apply for criminal bail bonds to post bail for felonies, violent crimes, and drunk driving charges. When the defendant secures a criminal bail bond, like felony bail bonds, he or she legally agrees to faithfully attend court hearings and to pay any financial penalties or fines resulting from their crime.

Similarly, a civil bail bond works in much the same way, only a civil bond is used in civil court cases. Civil cases may include fraud, negligence, medical malpractice, or defamation. It is highly likely that a defendant will owe debt and/or financial penalties following their court date for civil cases. A civil bail bond ensures that the arrestee will pay this debt.

Fast bail bond services do what they can to expedite the bail bond process. That way, the defendant is not spending nights in jail unnecessarily. Defendants can apply for either type of bond using fast bail bond services.

Bail Is Just The Beginning

While many may interpret posting bail as a straightforward transaction (i.e., take care of finances or secure a bond and leave), that is not always the case. In fact, the judge may place several conditions to be released on bail. These conditions may include — but are not limited to — the following:

  • Regular check-ins prior to their court date. Depending on the severity of the defendant’s crime and/or his or her perceived flight risk, the judge may mandate several pretrial check-ins. Service officers will keep tabs on the defendants’ compliance to these check-in periods.
  • Employment. The court views being released on bail as a privilege. To show respect for this privilege and good faith toward acting as a responsible, law-abiding citizen, the judge may ask the defendant to remain employed for the duration of his or her bail. If the arrestee does not currently have a job, the judge may ask them to dutifully search for one and produce documentation chronicling their search.
  • Limitations on travel. In many cases, the judge will ask those released on bail to stay in the immediate area. Attempting to travel out of state or planning an extended vacation violates the terms of their bail.
  • Adherence to no-contact orders. If the defendant faces domestic violence charges, abuse charges, or stalking charges, they will be required to comply by no-contact orders.
  • Drug and alcohol restrictions. Depending on their alleged crimes, defendants may be asked to refrain from consuming drugs or alcohol. Indulging in old habits constitutes a violation of his or her bail.

Just like a quality bail agency will clearly outline how to finance bail payments, they will also discuss the terms of your bail at length. Generally speaking, forfeiting any terms of your bail bears the same legal consequences — or very similar legal consequences — as failing to appear in court.

How Do Bail Bonds Work?

After the judge sets the bail amount, the defendant has the option to work with an affordable bail bond service. After paying bail bond services’ fees and putting up collateral, the bail bond agent enters into an agreement with the court that they will pay the remaining about of the bail if the defendant fails to show up to court. Many bondsmen will require their client to sign a contract and/or legal documentation outlining the terms of their agreement.

Because the defendant is typically in custody at the beginning of this process, a loved one or family member often secure the bail bond for them. To get started, the family member or party filing for a bail bond will need the following information: the full name of the person in custody, their booking number, the jail where they are being held, and the exact amount of bail required for release. Knowing their charges and having any additional information at their disposal only helps the process.

With collateral and/or a legally binding document in hand and the bail bondsman working directly with the court, the defendant will be released until their court date. After receiving their fees and collateral, the release may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. For the most part, this is dependent on the specific jail and its traffic or volume, not the bail bond agent. However, there are things an experienced bond agent can do to speed up release.

When the arrestee fulfills his or her promise to show up at court and sits through legal proceedings, the bail bond is generally dissolved. Once that happens, the bail bond agent returns the collateral or any finances above their cut to their client. The agency keeps the 8 to 10% put up by the client to pay for their time and services. If all goes well, that is the end of the bail bonds process. Laws in states and jurisdictions vary. In some states, for example, some additional steps may be required to release collateral. Some require an official petition filed with the court to return full ownership of real estate or home equity.

What if the defendant fails to show up in court? If the defendant does not show up at court per their agreement, the bail bond is forfeit. At that time, it is fair game for the bail bond agency to use any collateral they collected to pay off the remaining portion of the defendant’s bail. Bail bond services may finance the rest of their client’s bail with jewelry, stocks, shares, real estate, bank accounts, credit cards, and/or home equity. Property may be seized by the bond agency itself, or ultimately turned over to the court.

In nearly all instances, failure to appear in court results in bail forfeiture. There are extenuating circumstances when defendants may be able to petition the court to reinstate his or her bail and remain out of custody, however. For example, in the event of a medical emergency, the court may reinstate bail with proper documentation.

In the event of failing to appear in court and failing to petition to reinstate bail, the defendant does not just face potential financial consequences. The defendant will also be placed under arrest as soon as possible. In many cases, bail bond services employ bounty hunters to aid the courts in this process. Carefully review the terms of contracts with bail bond agencies. These terms will make it clear that bail isn’t just about your finances and failure to appear in court may have legal consequences as well. Review applicable state laws as well. Some states give bail bond agents full authority to work closely with bounty hunters. Others do not.

If bounty hunters are legal in your area, many bail bond agencies use them because the court will waive bail fines if you show up to court or jail within a predetermined time period, typically about 90 days.

Some Final Words On Bail Advice

If you or a loved one hopes to be released on bail, there are several things to consider when choosing a bail bond company. Here are just a few:

  • What kind of experience do they have? Understandably, loved ones may turn to the cheapest possible services first. However, the most inexpensive bail bond agency isn’t always best. While many agencies offer structured fees based on income, that is just one factor to consider. The most important factor to consider may be how many years the bond agency has been in service. Securing bail bonds and release requires a certain amount of legal know-how. Make certain your bail bond agent is up to the task. As of 2019, Bail bonds are a $2.3 billion dollar industry. Ask about your bail bond agent’s level of experience.
  • Take a close look at their reputation. Do your research. The best bail bond services have a respectable rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). When dealing with matters as tricky as legal defense and finance, it is wise to take a cursory look at company reviews — at minimum.
  • Ask to see what their agreement looks like. Bail bond agents will require a certain amount of the bail upfront to pay for their services. This amount is not refunded. It goes toward their paycheck. Ask to see their agreement. A quality bail bondsman will clearly lay out that initial fee and/or any stipulations or variations on that fee. They will specify when and whether they require collateral. They will go into detail about what constitutes collateral for their company and any legal documentation or paperwork you may need to present with it. In other words, quality companies remove the guesswork. Everything will be clearly written out for you.
  • It is wise to work with bonds agents who have long-standing relationships with sheriff’s offices, jails, officers, judges, and courthouse employees. Ideally, when working with a bail bond agency, the finances and other conditions will be worked out in time to negotiate release within hours or 24 hours at most. Agencies with long-standing relations with local authorities will be able to expedite this process.

Getting released on bail affords you or your loved one the opportunity to prepare for your case and work with an attorney — while spending nights comfortably at home. This freedom can make all the difference to your mindset and eventual outcome.

For that reason, your relationship with bail bond services is an important one. Make sure you understand the process going in. Contact a local bail bonds agent with any questions you may have and begin building a positive and trusting professional relationship.

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