After being arrested for a crime and processed at the police station, you will likely be sent to the local jail. In most cases, you'll then have an opportunity to be released ahead of your trial. The conditions of your release are determined at a bail hearing.
There are five ways you can be released from jail after an arrest:
- Give cash to the court or jail for the full amount of the bail ordered by the judge
- Use real estate as collateral to post a bond with the court
- Use a local bail bond service (discussed below)
- If you're lucky, the judge can order pre-trial release, which lets you go free until the next court date based on your own recognizance
- If you're in a participating jurisdiction, the judge could release you in a "pretrial release" program. While your case is pending you are required to check in with the court system, with varying levels of supervision,
This article will focus on situations where a defendant arranges for their release through a bail bondsman (or bond agent) who, in turn, guarantees to pay the bail amount to the court if the defendant fails to appear for trial. Learn more about the role of a bail bondsman by reading below.
Your First Call to a Bail Agent
The judge has set bail to get someone out of jail. If the amount of money is too high for the accused to raise the entire amount of their bail, they (or a family member or friend) can turn to the services of a bail bondsman.
Here is the important information you will need to provide to the bail bondsman. Have this information ready before you call.
The bail agent will then discuss pricing options with you. A bail bondsman will charge a non-refundable fee, usually 10-20% of the total bail amount.
Role of a Bail Bondsman: The Process
Once the bail bonding company has been paid its fee, the bond agent then gives the court a surety bond to release the defendant. As long as the defendant appears in court as required and doesn't miss any court dates, you won't have to pay any further money to the bail bondsman.
If the defendant doesn't appear at a court date (if they "skip bail"), the court will keep the bail money that the bail bonding agency gave them. Now the friends or family who co-signed the bail bond will be responsible for paying the full amount of the bond amount.
The bail bond agent also has the authority to locate and detain the defendant and then to surrender them to the court. Bonding agencies often hire bounty hunters to track people who have skipped out on bail. The powers of bounty hunters exceed those of the police. They can cross jurisdictional borders. They can use trickery and force.
A Critique of Commercial Bail Bonding
There are inherent problems with the justice system's reliance on commercial bail bonding to ensure people show up in court.
The first criticism of bail bonding is that bail is often unaffordable for low-income people. They languish in jail while the wealthy go home. Even a non-refundable premium of only 10% may be too high. This is not a reflection on the work of the bail bondsman, but of the inequity in the criminal justice system.
The second criticism relates to the impact of the use of collateral. If the accused skips their court hearing and their family has paid the bail fee (highly likely if the accused is poor), now the family has lost the total amount of the bond. The extended family may now be impoverished. If they used collateral to obtain the bond (such as a home), they could face foreclosure.
A third critique involves the practice of using bounty hunters. This critique is directed at the bail bonding industry. An Atlantic article described bounty hunters as "acting as wildly unregulated quasi-police." They are authorized to use deadly force to recover their prey. Thanks to an 1872 Supreme Court ruling, Taylor v. Taintor, they are not bound by the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, or the 5th Amendment protection from self-incrimination.
In response to these criticisms, some have called for the abolition of commercial bail bonding and the universal use of court deposit systems. The defendant would pay a deposit of 10% of the bail to the court, which would be returned after the trial (less a small administrative fee).
The Role of a Bail Bondsman: Related Resources
Learn More About the Role of a Bail Bondsman: Talk to an Attorney
You've been arrested. You want to get home to your family and prepare for trial. You're broke, so what should you do? Learn the role of a bail bondsman and how the bail system works. If you've been charged with a crime, talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney near you today.