Bail For Beginners

When a criminal suspect is arrested there are certain procedures that must be followed. The suspect must first be processed into police custody (booking) and then a determination of eligibility for release must be made.  A suspect’s release may be secured in exchange for the posting of a specific amount of money (bail).

Bail is money or other property that is deposited with the court to ensure that the person accused will return to court when he or she is required to do so. If the defendant returns to court as required, the bail will be returned at the end of the case, even if the defendant is ultimately convicted. However, if the defendant does not come to court when required or violates his or her bail conditions, the bail will be forfeited to the court and will not be returned.

A suspect may also be released through “own recognizance.”  In other words, the suspect may be released with the promise to appear in court at a later date.


The booking process typically involves the following steps:

  • Collecting the suspect’s personal information (i.e., name, date of birth, physical characteristics)
  • Recording information about the suspect’s alleged crimes
  • Performing a record search about the suspect’s criminal background
  • Fingerprinting, photographing, and searching the suspect
  • Confiscating personal items from the suspect
  • Placing the suspect in a holding cell or local jail


In general, getting out of jail can be accomplished by posting bail.  Bail is generally cash or a piece of property that has a cash value that you give to the court in return for your promise to show up to court when you are ordered to do so.  If you show up to court your bail is returned.  However if you do not show up the court will keep your bail and will most likely issue a warrant for your arrest.  The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits excessive bail.  The purpose of bail is to help guarantee that an arrestee shows up to court when ordered.  Therefore bail cannot be used as a means for the government to raise money or to punish a person for being arrested.

How is Bail Determined?

If you are arressted you may be able to pay a certain amount of money in order to leave prison before trial.  This is known as posting bail, but the amount of bail can vary depending on the state and several different factors.  Generally, a judge will use a bail schedule to determine how much your bail should be.  This schedule can be affected by things such as the suspect’s criminal record and history, the seriousness of the offense, and the suspect’s ties to family, community and employment. 

The main factor a judge will consider is the severity of the crime, when a defendant is accussed of committing a violent crime or a crime against a particularly vulnerable group, the judge may increase the bail amount.  When looking into a suspect’s ties to the community, employment and family the judge is looking into the flight risk of the defendant.  The judge wants to make sure that the bail amount will be enough to keep the person from fleeing, but also to ensure the person will come to court in order to reclaim the bail amount.   

Posting Bail

Posting bail is the process of paying the amount of money that the court has determined appropriate to secure your release.  This can be accomplished in several ways:

  • Paying the bail amount by cash or check
  • Signing over ownership rights to property that has a cash value that is equal to or exceeds your bail amount
  • Giving a bond (a promise to pay the full bail amount if you do not appear) in the full amount of your bail
  • Signing a statement promising to appear when ordered (release on own recognizance)

Getting released on your own recognizance is by far the most preferred method of posting bail since this involves no monetary outlay. If you chose to pay the bail amount the full amount of your bail will be returned to you when you show up as ordered (minus small administrative fees from the court). A bond usually costs about 10% of your bail amount.  If you fail to show up when ordered to by the court, you will lose the cost of the bond as well as any collateral you may have used to secure the bond.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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