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What Is a Bail Bond And How Does It Work?

Last updated 03/26/2024 by

Lacey Stark

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A bail bond is a type of surety bond, or insurance, that allows a defendant to be released from jail until a trial or other court appearance is required. Usually, a bail bondsman will pay the bail for a suspect in exchange for a cash payment — the bail bond — equaling a percentage of the total bail. If the defendant fails to show up for court, the bail bondsman forfeits the bail bond and is responsible for paying the remainder of the full bail amount. If the defendant does go to court, the bail agent keeps the bond as profit.
People are arrested every day for crimes big and small. They are read their Miranda warnings and are put in jail. But what happens next? Do they sit in jail until their trial or the case is otherwise concluded? This is a big problem. People who might not even be guilty stand to lose their jobs, homes, and families if they have to remain in jail for very long.
For those reasons and more, many defendants will enlist the help of a bail bondsman who posts bail in exchange for the accused paying the bail bond. In addition, the accused will sign a contract agreeing to appear in court for trial or any other court appearances.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. Let’s take a closer look at how a bail bond works, the role of bail agents, and what happens when a suspect fails to abide by the conditions imposed by the court. First, let’s explore what happens at a bail hearing.

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What is a bail hearing?

In criminal cases, when someone is arrested, they attend a bail hearing presided over by a judge. This is where the judge will hear about the case and get bail recommendations from both the prosecutor and the defense attorney. (You can probably recall this scenario from dozens of movies over the years.)
But the judge has the ultimate say in setting the bail amount, and they have quite a bit of leeway. (Although many jurisdictions have limits.) In some cases, a judge will deny bail altogether or it will be set at an amount so high that a defendant can’t possibly afford it. This usually happens when violent crimes are committed or if the defendant is deemed a flight risk.
In most cases, a bail amount will be set and then the accused will have three options.

1. Stay in jail

Usually, defendants who choose to remain in jail until their trial do so because they either can’t afford bail and/or aren’t able to hire a bail bondsmen to post bail for them.
This is a huge problem for low-income individuals and is generally thought to be part of the larger problem of mass incarceration in the United States.

2. Pay the full bail amount

In this case, either the bail is set low for relatively minor crimes, or the defendant has very deep pockets. Either way, the money is refundable at the conclusion of the case, regardless of the outcome, minus any fees or court costs.

3. Hire a bail bond agency

Bail bond agencies are for people who can’t afford the full bail amount. However, these people can scrape together enough cash to cover the bail bond and put up some sort of collateral for the remainder.
Whatever the outcome of the case, the bond is kept by the bail bond agent, but the collateral for the remainder is returned.

How to finance a bail bond

Some bail bond companies offer payment plans as part of their service. Usually, it will involve fees or interest payments. Another option is to get a personal loan or get a secured loan by leveraging a valuable asset, such as your home or your car. The comparison tool below can help you compare personal lenders and see what rates you qualify for without hurting your credit.

SuperMoney may receive compensation from some or all of the companies featured, and the order of results are influenced by advertising bids, with exception for mortgage and home lending related products. Learn more

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How bail bonds work

As we discussed above, if someone doesn’t want to sit in jail until their trial, and they can’t afford to post the entire bail, they would need to enlist the services of a bail bond agent. Or, more accurately, a friend or family member will have to contact the bail bondsman.
The accused or someone else will have to pay the bond before being released from jail. The client and the bail agent will also need to fill out the necessary paperwork, which is basically a contract stating that the defendant agrees to appear at their court date. If they don’t show up, the bail agent agrees to pay the court the remainder of the bail amount.
For this reason, and because of the risk involved, the suspect or family members will likely have to put up some collateral. Depending on the severity of the criminal activity and if the bail is set very high, someone might have to put up their house. For lower amounts, people may use cars, jewelry, or other valuables as collateral.
Should the defendant fail to appear in court, the bail agent can seize the assets to settle up with the court. They will also likely send a bounty hunter after the accused if state laws allow for that. If the defendant appears in court at the appointed times, at the conclusion of the case, they can reclaim their assets and the bail bondsman keeps the bail bond as payment for services rendered.

How much do bail bonds cost?

Typically, a bail bond will cost 10% of the total bail amount, although this could vary a bit. Some states cap the bond at 8%, or you could pay a little more for a federal bail bond. This means there were federal crimes committed as opposed to state or county criminal conduct. So, if the bail is set at $500,000, the bond would be a whopping $50,000.

What is a bail bond bounty hunter?

If someone jumps bail and runs, they are now considered a fugitive from justice. That means a bail bondsman is now required to pay the court back for the bail money they guaranteed. To avoid paying that, some bail bond agencies will send bounty hunters to track down and apprehend the suspect.
Some states regulate bounty hunters, also known as a bail recovery agent, while others have outlawed them. That being said, they’re often people with some background in the criminal justice system, law enforcement, or private detection with the special skills needed to get suspected criminals off the streets to face their crimes. Sometimes the bail bondsman and the bounty hunter are the same.

The problem with cash bail bond systems

There is an ongoing debate about the problems with cash bail systems. One of the central issues is that many people (who are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty) sit in jail awaiting trial for relatively minor crimes because they can’t afford to post bail.
Additionally, this problem seems to disproportionately affect black and brown communities, who tend to have lower incomes. And often these people are left there for months waiting for their court dates, which can have life-changing negative impacts on their lives regardless of guilt or innocence.
“Pretrial detention often has devastating consequences for a person’s life. It often means loss of a job or loss of housing. It can mean loss of custody of children, and it also has demonstrable negative impacts on a person’s case,” says attorney Katherine Hubbard of Civil Rights Corps in a 2021 interview with NPR.

Does every state have a bail bond business?

Most states do have some type of bail bond agencies, where bail bondsmen agree to post bail for suspects accused of crimes. These agencies also guarantee the full bail amount will be paid to the court if the defendant fails to appear in court.
However, four states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin — have banned commercial bail bonding, so bonds are paid directly to the court and are used to pay against fees, penalties, and other court costs. (Although, as of 2023, Illinois is banning cash bail altogether.)
The California Supreme Court has also ruled that courts must consider the ability of defendant’s ability to pay, saying:
Conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional.”
IMPORTANT! If you’re out on bail, be sure to follow your bail agreement to the letter. If the court finds out you’ve violated its terms, you’ll have to return to jail until your court date, and it could affect the outcome of your case.


What’s a surety bond?

In general, surety bonds are written agreements that guarantee payment, compliance, or a promise to perform. They involve three parties: the person who agrees to comply or pay, the party who requires these demands to be met, and the third party who facilitates and guarantees the compliance.
Simply put, in the event of a criminal case, the defendant agrees to comply with the conditions, the court requires the compliance, and the bail bond system facilitates the contract and agrees to pay in the event of non-compliance by the defendant.

What is a recognizance bond?

If a judge issues a recognizance bond, no money changes hands and the accused is released “on their own recognizance.” This usually happens for more minor crimes but can also occur with felonies when the defendant is not considered a flight risk.
A recognizance bond is not without conditions though. The suspect must sign a document agreeing to whatever conditions the court deems appropriate. This includes promising to appear on court dates, but may also involve not leaving the state, not indulging in drugs or alcohol, or associating with convicted felons, for example.

How do bail bondsmen make money?

Bail bondsmen make their money from the 10% fee that most bail bond agents charge, plus any other fees assessed. Most people out on bail do not flee the country, so the losses incurred by that type of scenario are minimal.

How long do you stay in jail if you can’t make bail?

If you are incapable of posting bail, you will have to wait in jail until the completion of your trial or other resolution of your case. If you plead guilty or are found guilty, you will stay in jail until the remainder of your sentence is up. Or, in some cases, a court will rule that the time served is sufficient punishment and you will be released even if you are found guilty.

How long can you be on bail for?

A person could be on bail for weeks, months, or even years. It all depends on how long it takes for the case to be resolved, which hinges on several factors.
For example, a murder could take years to go to trial, meaning someone would be free on bail the entire time, assuming they meet all of the bail conditions. Whereas if someone takes a plea agreement it may take only weeks or months for the case to be closed.

Key Takeaways

  • A bail bond is a percentage of the total bail, paid to a bail agent, who then posts bail for the defendant.
  • The bail bondsman acts as the insurance that the accused will appear in court at the appointed times.
  • If the defendant fails to appear in court, the bail agent is on the hook for the bail money owed to the court.
  • To recover the bail money if a defendant flees, some bail bondsmen will send a bounty hunter to find them and bring them back into the justice system.
  • Some people disagree with the bail bond system because they say it unfairly discriminates against people arrested who are low-income or minority citizens.

SuperMoney may receive compensation from some or all of the companies featured, and the order of results are influenced by advertising bids, with exception for mortgage and home lending related products. Learn more

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