Updated: September 13, 2019
It can be extremely stressful when you or your loved one ends up in jail, and not knowing how bail bonds work can add on an extra element of frustration. We have created a simple guide to help you understand exactly how bail works. We answer common question around the bail bond process, and even go into state specific laws since bail bonds can function differently from state to state – both in how bail works and how much bail costs. Although bail bonds are commonly used after an arrest occurs, we go into all the options that might be available to you so you can be prepared to make the best decision.
- How do bail bonds work?
- What bail options are available to me?
- Why should I use a bail bondsman?
- What information does the jail or bondsman need?
- What goes into setting the bail bond amount?
- What happens after my release from jail after posting bail?
- What is the bail bond process in my state?
How do bail bonds work?
To better understand how bail bonds work, we need to start with the arrest, which leads to the person getting booked at the local jail where they are processed. This process includes notating the full arrest record in the jail system, having a mugshot taken, as well as fingerprinting. After being booked in and processed, some states have a scheduled bail amount that is set for the most common offenses. With a set bail amount, you can begin exploring your options for release.
What bail options are available to me?
There are various options that may be available to the arrested person in order to get out of jail. Some options will be available to some while not for others – this will depend on the reason behind the arrest, criminal history, and other factors.
- Own Recognizance Release – The jail can release you on Own Recognizance (OR) or Personal Recognizance (PR) which is typically used on smaller crimes committed and the judge finds you are a low risk and has strong confidence that you will show up to court. You don’t need to pay a fee and you simply sign documents promising to appear for your court cases, plus any other stipulations set by the legal system.
- Unsecured Bail Bond – An unsecured bail bond is similar to being released on your Own Recognizance. A magistrate will set a bail amount, such as $1,000 unsecured, meaning you do not have to secure that bail amount before you are released. Instead, you sign a “promise to appear” and agree that you will owe the court that much money if you do not appear in court. You do not need a bail bondsman for an unsecured bond.
- Cash Bail – You can always pay the bail amount with cash or a money order, but you have to pay the entire bail amount. The benefit here is that the court will give you back the full bail amount minus any administrative fees upon completion of court dates. The downside is that your cash is tied up for the entirety of the court case, which can be an undetermined length of time.
- Surety Bail Bonds – A bail bondsman can post the bail amount for you – you will pay the bondsman a fee of 10-15% of the total bail amount which you cannot get back.
- Property Bail Bonds – You can use personal property or land/home value that’s equal or greater than the bail amount. If you don’t show up to court or violate your release terms, the court will issue a warrant for your arrest and can take over your property or force its sale.
- Third-Party Release – This option is common in many federal cases, but not in state courts. Alaska is one of the few states where this is an option. For low level offenses and cases where an individual has a reasonably clean record, the judge may release the arrested person to a Third Party, such as a loved one who can help monitor the person and help ensure they appear for all court cases. This person is held accountable for the released person and there needs to be a high level of confidence that this is the right path.
Why should I use a bail bondsman?
Requirements to use a bail bondsman are not always necessary, and you don’t have to use a bail bondsman to free yourself or your loved one from jail, however it is the most common method used for release. When you use a surety bail bond, you only need to come up with 10-15% of the total bail bond amount. Although this fee is non-refundable, no matter if you are found not guilty or your case is dropped, the bondsman option is often the only possible option for many people. If you can be released on Own Recognizance or if Third-Party Release is an option in your state, you should definitely explore those options ahead of using a bail bondsman. More significant offenses don’t typically come with that option so a bondsman needs to be used.
Property bonds are a good alternate option to a bondsman if you have enough property you can leverage. Most individuals are renting and can’t come up with enough property value, since most states require the property to be the same value as the bail amount, and in some states, even double the bail amount. You are also taking a high risk if you are bailing someone else out. If they skip bail and don’t appear for their court dates, then your entire property is at risk. The same applies for cash bail, where you need to post 100% of the bail amount using cash or a money order. While you will receive the full cash amount back, minus any administrative fees, this also puts you at risk if the person you are bailing out does not show up to court. You are also out of that money for as long as the case is active, which can be 3-6 months in some cases. A 10% fee from a bail bondsman makes a lot more sense in most cases.
What information does the jail or bondsman need?
When calling a bail bondsman or the jail to post bail, you will need as much information as possible. The jail is a busy place and any missing information can cause delays. Be ready to provide as much of the below information as possible. Required fields are notated below.
- Required: First and last name of arrested person
- Required: Jail they are located in
- Charges they are arrested on (especially important for bondsman to assess risk)
- Booking number (useful if available)
- Bail amount (if known, it will speed up the process)
What goes into setting the bail bond amount?
A judge or bail magistrate will take various factors into account when setting your bail bond amount. Most states will have a preset bail schedule that shows the set bail amount for common offenses. In some states, you have the option to meet with the judge at your first court hearing and argue for the bail amount to be lowered. In other states, you will have to have your attorney request a “bond appeal” to have the bail amount lowered or bail conditions changed. Judges have a process in place that helps them decide what the bail amount should be. The most common factors are:
- Your age
- If you have any other current charges in that jurisdiction, or are currently on probation
- The strength of your local support network (friends, family, employment) and if you live in-state or out-of-state
- Your criminal history and length of time between prior offenses
- Prior record of not appearing to court
- The seriousness of the criminal charge, which includes both the length of a possible sentence if
convicted and whether or not it is a crime which poses a danger to the community (i.e.:
violence, drunk driving, etc.)
- A stable living situation (e.g. can the court reach you by mail, if necessary?)
- Any other flight risk factors
What happens after my release from jail after posting bail?
Please know that being bailed out by a bondsman may come with various contractual agreements. You will need to discuss the full terms with the bondsman and the court, including all fees involved, and what the expectations are after release.
Some common question to obtain answers to are:
- Do you need to check in with the bondsman on a weekly basis?
- Is there a need for a tracking device?
- Will I be tested for drugs and alcohol after release from jail?
- Can I travel out of state after posting bail?
Restrictions and guidelines can be set by the court or the bondsman. Violating any of these bail processes can result in a warrant for your arrest. Make sure to attend all your court cases or you’re breaking court and bail terms which will result in arrest.
Tracking devices are not used in most instances; however, you should ask for and understand all of the bail conditions set by the court or your bondsman.
Drug testing is often administered by pre-trial services or other court officers that are similar to probation officers in court cases where drugs are involved or for defendants who have a history of heavy alcohol or drug use. This can apply to more than just drug offenses. For example, if you are arrested for shoplifting but the court is aware that you were attempting to support your drug habit, the judge may order drug-testing by a pre-trial services officer in order for you to remain free on bond.
Traveling out of state is one of the most common conditions addressed by a magistrate or judge. When you are released from jail, you will be given a list of bail conditions to follow. One of the first things it will address is whether you can leave the state or not. If you are ordered to remain in the state but need to leave at a later date, you can always have your attorney file a motion to amend or appeal your bond conditions. Never break a bond condition until after it has been successfully appealed or amended by the court.
What is the bail bond process in my state?
How bail bonds work can differ from state to state. A few states don’t have a private bail bonds industry and take on the entire bail process on themselves through their jail and court system. Most states have bondsman available and they typically charge a 10% bail bond fee for their service. Don’t be fooled, however, and browse our state-specific bail pages which tell you exactly how the bail bond process works in every state, as well as how much you can expect to pay for a bail bond per state.
Visit our locations page and select your state to learn how bail works in your state.