To someone watching the news, getting out of jail on bond and getting out on bail might seem like the same thing. But there's a fundamental difference that will matter to you if you ever wind up in jail yourself — or get a late-night call from someone who has. Bail is money that gets you out of jail, while a bond is a promise from someone else to pay that money if necessary.
A Judge Sets Bail
If you have the misfortune to get arrested and put in jail, you'll eventually be brought before a judge. It's up to that judge to decide whether you should remain in jail until your trial. If the judge thinks you can be trusted to return to court for all required appearances, you might be released "on your own recognizance," meaning you can leave jail with only your promise to return.
However, if the judge thinks you need an incentive to come back, you might be required to deposit a certain amount of money with the court. This is bail. If you show up for all court appearances like you're supposed to, you get your bail money back when your case is finally settled. If you don't show up, you forfeit the money (and the court puts out a warrant for you).
To make "bailing out" faster and easier for people suspected of minor offenses, a jail may have a judge-approved schedule of bail amounts posted. Pay the posted amount for your alleged offense, and you're free to go. If the police think you shouldn't get out, though, you'll have to wait for a judge.
When You Would Post a Bond
The more serious the crime, the higher your bail is likely to be. In some cases, you could be denied bail entirely. Many defendants don't have enough money to cover their bail. These people can turn to a bail bondsman. The bondsman gives the court an appearance bond — essentially a promise that if the defendant doesn't return to court as required, the bondsman will pay the full amount of the bail, which the court will keep. It thus becomes the bondsman's responsibility to make sure you go to court, since he's the one who will have to pay.
Blow off your court date, and you can expect the bondsman to come looking for you — or send a "fugitive recovery agent," aka bounty hunter.
Bonds Aren't Free
Bail bondsmen don't get you out of jail as an act of charity. They get paid by you or by someone who wants you out of jail. The typical fee for a bond is 10 percent of the bail amount. So if your bail is set at $1,000, the bond will cost you $100. If it's $250,000, the bond will be $25,000. Unlike with bail, however, you don't get this money back.
Being Denied Bail
Except in cases where bail is specified or prohibited by law — as is often the case with murder suspects — judges have almost total discretion in setting bail. There are several considerations that can lead a judge to order you held without bail. Among them:
- You're considered a danger to society.
- You're a "flight risk," meaning you might disappear.
- You're not a U.S. citizen, which makes you a flight risk.
- You were already on parole or probation when arrested.
What judges can't do is use bail to "punish" you for being arrested in the first place or use bail as a way to raise revenue for the government. Those practices are prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.