Understanding Bail


Bail Basics

Most people don’t understand exactly how the concept of applying for and receiving bail works in criminal cases.  Funnily enough, for most people their knowledge of how the bail system works comes from watching movies and television programs like “Law & Order”.  The problem is that most of the movies and TV shows aren’t entirely accurate with how the bail system and bail bonds actually work.

Because it is such an important part of the criminal justice system we will take a quick look at bail basics so you can understand how everything works.

On television shows when someone gets arrested they usually spend a short time in jail, make a call and get their friends to come downtown and quickly bail them out. The inaccuracies are presented from the start because when you are locked up for commission of a crime you may not get a phone call! Also before you post bail there are a number of steps that take time and after you have posted bail you aren’t exactly “free” like they portray on the TV shows.

On TV shows the process in incredibly fast and bail is a get out of jail card but it completely skips the arraignment process where your charges are stated before a judge. The judge will determine if you can be bailed at all, and may refuse to let you out or provide strict requirements for your bail. Even if you are granted bail, you are only free for a short time.

Also on TV the bail bondsman is often displayed as a tough guy who gives criminals some money to get them out of jail, and tracks them down if they skip bail!

How the process really works – after you are arrested and taken to jail you may or may not get a phone call. A date will be set for arraignment and on that date your charges will be read before a judge and the judge will determine if there is a case to be answered. If there is a case to answer (sometimes your lawyer may successfully argue there is not), then you can apply for bail. The prosecution may argue that you shouldn’t be able to apply for bail or that certain restrictions be placed on your bail application. The judge then decides on whether bail should be allowed and what amount needs to be paid, if any.

If you do not have the funds to pay for bail then you may use the services of a bail bondsman. The bail bondsman will ask for a percentage of the bail cost, which they receive as payment. The judge determines what percentage the bail bondsman can receive of the total bail. For serious offenses there will likely be a higher bail cost so the percentage paid to the bondsman may be less.

The money that the bail bondsman gives to the court is paid back to him once the accused returns for the trial. If the accused skips bail, often the bail bondsman will hire a third party to chase down accused persons who will bring them to court forcefully. That person also receives a part of the bail as a payment if they are successful. That role of “bounty hunter” is often glamorized in Hollywood movies, but it’s a pretty tough job chasing down runaway criminals! So now you know a bit more about the process of bail and that it’s a lot longer than television shows make it out to be!