What Is a Bail Bond and How Does It Work?

Updated February 14, 2024
6 min read
Title "What Is a Bail Bond?"; Themis, suitcase, papers, bank notes

Granting bail is generally the first decision a judge makes in a criminal case, and it's far from trivial. This action serves to assure a criminal defendant's presence at future court proceedings.

Bail is a cornerstone in criminal justice and often prompts the query: how does a bail bond work? The following text serves as a simplified guide to answer this question and offers insight into this crucial aspect of the legal system. It aims to elucidate the intricacies and workings of the bail bond process for those seeking to gain a deeper understanding.

What Is a Bail Bonding?

A bail bond, functioning as one of many pretrial release mechanisms within the United States criminal justice system in 2023, not only ensures a defendant's court appearance but also provides financial assurance to the court. The answer to the question: What does a bail bond do? It lies in its primary function — to serve as a form of financial guarantee that incentivizes compliance with court appointments and terms of release.

There are two forms of pretrial release mechanisms: a financial form and a non-financial form. The latter form would usually include release on their own recognizance, supervised release, and an unsecured (no money) bond. A bail bond is the first form of pretrial release mechanism. The judge decides how much the defendant must pay to the court if he or she fails to meet the terms of conditional release from custody.

A bail bond itself has two types: 

  1. Once the defendant signs the cash bond, he or she must secure the funds to ensure that he or she will appear in court when necessary; and

  2. To guarantee the defendant’s appearance in court, a bond person (surety) lends the defendant money. The defendant signs these agreements also. A surety company can set a surety bond, a second type of bail bond.

Bail bond example

Jacob has been arrested. The court set his bail at $10,000. As Jacob cannot afford $10,000 in cash, he seeks the help of a Bail Bondsman to be released from jail. The bondsman must post a bail bond of $ 1,000 for Jacob to be released from jail.

How Does the Bail System Work?

The surety bail bonds process happens when a criminal defendant in the custody of a court seeks to secure his or her temporary release from detention by posting a bail bond. This process will typically involve distinct actions and activities several parties undertake, namely, the court, the defendant himself or herself, an indemnitor, and a bondsman (sometimes known as a “bail bond agent”).

What Does a Bail Bondsman or Bail Bond Agent Do?

When someone is charged with a crime and does not have the money to post the entire bail with the court, a bail bondsman provides a bail bond. Bail bondsmen guarantee the defendant's appearance in court by providing money to the court for the defendant’s bail.

How do bail bondsmen make money?

Bondsmen typically charge defendants a non-refundable fee of 10% of the bond amount, which represents the compensation they receive for paying the entire bail amount. Bail bondsmen receive the total amount of the bail as well as a 10% fee if the defendant returns to court. 

How do bail bonds make money?

The bail bondsman will keep the 10% charge if the defendant fails to appear in court but loses the amount they paid towards the person’s bail unless they can locate and convince the person to appear.

What Happens If I Forfeit Bail?

Failure to appear on a court date results in a forfeited bond. Bail bonds have specific responsibilities for defendants released from jail on bail. The defendant forfeits the entire amount of his or her bail if he or she misses a court date or fails to fulfill agreed-upon obligations. The bail amount will not be refunded to a defendant who fails to appear in court.

A bondsman is given about a week to locate his or her client after a defendant misses a court date and the bond is forfeited. The bondsman loses the money he received for the original bond if he is unable to do this. He will also be issued an arrest warrant for the defendant if he is unable to do so.

If you find yourself in this situation, you should contact the bondsman and the court as soon as possible. If you begin communicating with both your bondsman and the court as soon as possible, your court date will, in most cases, be reset.  

Warning

Failure to appear can result in fines and warrants for your arrest. It’s best to ensure you can attend all court appearances and contact the court if you are unable to for whatever reason.

How Do Bonds Work With Bail Step-by-Step?

The usual step-by-step bail bonds involved in operating the surety bond process work, as Jacobson and Stevens (2013) describe in The Regulation and Control of Bail Recovery Agents: An Exploratory Study.

The detailed description below will not only answer the question of “How do bonds work with bail?” but will also answer the important question of “How do bail bonds make money?” and “How does bond work for jail?” which is something the defendant (or their family members or relatives)must factor into their decision of whether or not to go through the “surety bail bond route” should he or she wish to secure his or her temporary release from court custody.

  1. The defendant applies for bail with the relevant court.

  2. If approved, the judge sets the bail amount, which depends on factors like crime severity, criminal history, and the defendant's community ties.

  3. The defendant or an "indemnitor" (usually a relative) posts bail on the defendant's behalf.

  4. The indemnitor contacts a "bondsman" who pledges to pay the bail amount to the court if the defendant violates bail conditions.

  5. The indemnitor or the defendant pays a non-refundable fee to the bondsman for this service, typically 10% to 15% of the bond value.

  6. The defendant signs a contract with the bondsman pledging to attend all court dates and adhere to all bail conditions, which can include travel limitations, no-contact orders, regular check-ins, or electronic monitoring.

  7. If the defendant fails to meet the bail terms, he or she becomes a fugitive and breaches his or her contract with the bondsman, leading to the forfeiture of the bond value to the court.

  8. If the court orders forfeiture, the bondsman must pay the total bond value to the court unless the defendant voluntarily surrenders or the bondsman returns them within a specific timeframe.

  9. The bondsman can then proceed to recover from either the indemnitor or the defendant the bond amount that the former paid to the court.

Are there alternatives to a bail bond?

Being released on one’s own recognizance has proven to be the most effective alternative to bail. In some states, pretrial services, mediation, and risk assessment tools are available.

Conclusion

Securing a defendant's temporary release from detention through the bail system can favor the defendant by reducing the chances of conviction or enhancing the possibilities for charge reduction. However, obtaining bail via surety bonds involves considerable expense and legal complexities.

Simply put, understanding how bail bonds work and navigating the system is neither cheap nor straightforward. It's worth noting that both bail and bond are often steeped in political controversy, adding another layer to the underlying complexities. Given these complexities, experienced lawyers can prove helpful in gaining a deeper insight and reducing the ambiguity surrounding the bail and bond processes.

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