Not everyone has cash on hand to pay their full bail amount. Other options exist but they may come at a cost (or premium). This article will discuss the most common types of bail, what they cost, and what forms of payment may be acceptable.
Bail is cash or its equivalent (such as a bail bond) that a court accepts in exchange for allowing a defendant to remain at liberty until the conclusion of the case. Bail creates a financial incentive for defendants to make all required court appearances. Should a defendant fail to appear in court, the bail is forfeited (that is, the court keeps the cash or collects on the bond) and the judge issues an arrest warrant.
For some offenses, a person can pay a set amount (from a "bail schedule") and gain their freedom shortly after an arrest. Other times, the judge must set the bail amount and conditions of release, which requires a hearing. A defendant might also opt to wait for a bail hearing to argue for a reduced bail amount.
Bail is usually posted in one of the following ways.
Cash bail requires payment of the full amount of bail. While not a viable option for many people, this form of bail will be fully refunded if the person shows up in court as ordered. (Sometimes, the court will take a small administrative fee.) If the defendant is convicted and ordered to pay fines and fees, the court may deduct these payments before returning the remainder of the bail money.
Surety bonds involve purchasing a bond from a bail bond seller, who typically charges a nonrefundable premium of 10% of the amount of bail. To purchase a bond, the person pays the 10% upfront (which won't be refunded) and puts up some form of collateral (such as a vehicle title, valuable personal property, or a land deed). For example, if the police or a court sets bail at $10,000, a defendant can usually purchase a bail bond by paying $1,000 and putting up collateral valued at $10,000.
If the defendant fails to appear in court, the bail bond seller must pay the court the full bail amount. Bail bond agents don't like when this happens. They will search for the person to bring them in (sometimes using bounty hunters). If the bail company is out any money, they can go after the signer, co-signer, or collateral.
In some jurisdictions, courts finance bail bonds. They might have the same requirements a bail bond company has—paying a 10% fee upfront and posting collateral. The advantage of court-financed bonds is that the 10% fee (minus a small administrative fee) will be returned if the arrested person makes all of their court appearances.
A person who owns valuable property may be allowed to post bail through a property bond. The value of the property must be worth at least the full amount of the bail, although some places require the value to exceed the bail amount by a certain percentage (say 10 or 25%).
For example, if the police or court set bail at $1,000, and a suspect owns a fancy watch worth $1,300, the defendant may be able to use the watch to post bail. Courts will usually specify what type of property may be used as collateral and the required documentation to file with the court, such as a house deed, vehicle title, and proof of liens.
Release on recognizance (ROR) or personal recognizance (PR) release allows a person to remain free in the community based on their promise to show up in court. While this type of release doesn't require an upfront payment, the defendant must still sign an agreement (sometimes called a ROR or PR bond) to that effect. In some cases, the agreement imposes a financial penalty for nonappearance. So if the court agrees to a $500 ROR or PR bond, the $500 represents the penalty that the defendant must pay if they fail to appear.
Although not a true type of bond, you might come across the term "walk-thru" or "walk-through" bonds. A person who has an active warrant may be able to take care of their warrant by posting a walk-through bond and setting up a new court date at the same time. You'll need to call the court, bonding office, or law enforcement agency to see if you're eligible.
Now that you're aware of the different types of bail, how do you pay for them? You can always pay for bail in cash. Other forms of payment will depend on the jurisdiction or bond company used. To find acceptable forms of payment, talk to someone at the jail, bonding office, or bond company or check out their website.
Many places will allow the following forms of payment for bail or bonds:
Depending on the jurisdiction, some may accept payment by:
Pretty much anyone willing to put up (and risk their) cash or collateral can post bail or bond. The defendant can post their own bail or ask a family member or friend to post it. If the defendant uses a bond company, the company may require the defendant to have a co-signer (someone who will help the company find the defendant should they fail to appear).
In some areas of the country (not many though), nonprofit organizations may post bail on a defendant's behalf and then assist them in making court dates (and may help in other ways too). Some examples of these nonprofit bail fund organizations include the Bail Project and LGBTQ Freedom Fund.
When someone is arrested and sitting in jail, there's usually a sense of urgency to get them out. But figuring out bail and bond options can be confusing (and costly). If you have an attorney, talk to your attorney about your options. Your attorney can explain options for bailing out and potentially argue for lower bail or ROR in a bail hearing. You can also try to find information on the website of the local court or a legal aid organization. Be wary of reassurances made by bail bond companies stating how they want to help you and make the process easier—their main objective is making money, and they make a lot of it at a significant cost to individuals. No matter what—take the time to carefully review any documents you're asked to sign and get an explanation of what's at stake before signing your name on the dotted line.
If you have additional questions on bail, check out Nolo's list of articles on Bailing Out of Jail. For questions on immigration bonds, check out this article.