You know the television cliché: a judge bangs a gavel and says something dramatic like, “Bail is set at $50,000.” While this is entertaining on-screen, it’s not so fun if you’re the defendant in a real courtroom and you are the one who needs to come up with enough money to be bailed out.
When you are charged with a criminal offense, bail is the set amount of money you must pay in order to spend the duration of your trial in the free world, rather than in jail. Since trials often begin weeks or months after an initial arrest, most defendants opt to post bail. Bail is expensive, so most accused persons use bail bonds to buy their freedom up front and agree to reimburse the bondsman later. This process alone can be tricky, so let’s unpack it to show how you can avoid getting in bond trouble while you’re already facing legal trouble.
1. Setting Bail
In most cases, a bail hearing is held 48 hours after the accused is arrested. Here, a judge sets a dollar amount for your release based on the severity of your offense. Very high figures are set for those accused of violent offenses. There is no standard price for freedom: the amount depends on the judge, the location, the offense, and the defendant’s criminal record.
2. Paying Your Way Out of Jail
Most postings are more than the accused can afford. Enter bail bonds and bondsman. Think of these bonds as insurance policies: if you get into a car accident, your insurance may pay you a lump sum for injuries and car damage, but your premiums will increase, forcing you to pay the company higher bills in the future. A bondsman operates similarly: he or she pays the court to release the defendant, who then pays back the sum incrementally, and at a premium.
3. Dealing With a Bond Agent
First and foremost, an agent will want to be sure that you aren’t a flight risk. Defendants sometimes fail to appear at their trial and leave the bondsman stuck paying the entire bond. In this case, agents are allowed by law to hire a bounty hunter to track defendants and coerce them into standing trial. Many agents may want a defendant’s family member to cosign the agreement, as a vote of confidence against a “flight risk.”
As a defendant, ask the agent questions, verify that they are licensed and trustworthy, and ask about all fees. Do research and consult a lawyer to make sure the agent is treating you fairly. Most bondsmen charge a premium of 10% on bail bonds. Make sure you don’t get overcharged or talked into a financing plan you can’t afford.