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How does Bail Work in the United States?

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“Bail” is a way in which you can be released from prison while you are awaiting trial. The court sets a dollar amount – known as your bail – in order to prevent you from fleeing before your court date. If you have been accused of a crime, it is important to understand how the bail process works.

Generally, you have three choices when it comes to bail. First, if you have enough money, you can pay the bail yourself. This is often possible in small court cases where there is little risk of your leaving the country. The bail here might be quite low. If you show up in court, that bail money is returned to you. Your second option is to simply not take the bail offer at all. If this is the case, you must remain in prison while you wait for your court date. That can be anywhere from a few days to months after your initial proceedings. Usually, remaining in jail is not a desired option.

The third choice is to work with a bail bondsman in order to try to make bail. If you go with this option, you’ll usually have to pay in 10% of your bail – and this money will not be returned to you, even if you do show up in court. Instead, it goes directly to the bail bondsman.

Why? Well, the bondman has put up the rest of the money on your behalf. This may be someone you know, like a family member, or it may be a corporation or private investor who simply wants to make money with bail bonds. In exchange for putting up the money so you can go free, the bail bondsman collects a fee from you – usually 10% of the total bail. The court holds this money, and when you show up, instead of it being rewarded to you, it is rewarded to the bondsman.

If you don’t show up in court, and you’ve gone with the first option, you do not get your money back, even if you show up at a later date (even if you are late to court, this money may not be returned). By going with the second option, there is no doubt that you will be in court on the appropriate days.

If you don’t show up and have worked with a bail bondsman, you will be in real trouble. This means that the bail bondsman has to find you or pay the entire bail amount before a certain date. That’s where bounty hunters come into the mix. A bounty hunter is employed by the bail bondsman to track you down. Bounty hunters are extremely resourceful and rarely eluded, so it is in your best interest to simply show up in court. After all, jumping bail, whether you worked with a bail bondsman or not, is a criminal offense.

Not every court case has bail. For some people, personal recognizance is permitted instead of money. This “bail” is simply the word of the defendant or an associate that the accused will show up in court. The judge or bail commissioner can set bail at whatever he or she believes is fair, according to the law. If you’ve been accused of a crime, understanding how bail works can help you make the best decisions about what to pay.

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