What's the Difference Between Bail and Bond?

by Rachel Elle
Jail cell with selective focus on bars.

From crime dramas to news articles about criminals being apprehended, the role of bail and bond are common discussion points when jail is concerned. Posting bail is a concern for the police and a positive for the person who has been arrested. Sometimes, these terms are used seemingly interchangeably to the point that the distinction isn't clear.

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However, bail and bond are not the same thing, and knowing the difference can be very important when dealing with arrests and the criminal justice system.

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What Is Bail?

Bail is the amount of money set by the court to warrant a defendant's release from custody in anticipation of a future trial date. A judge determines the amount, which can vary based on the nature of the crime and an individual's perceived flight risk. Judges may also consider criminal history, financial status and any outstanding warrants in making a decision. There may be rules associated with being out on bail, like staying on house arrest.

Bail may be a few hundred dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars. To be released from jail, the defendant or a representative, like a family member, must pay this amount. If a court date is met, the money will be returned, but if not, the court will keep the money, and an arrest warrant will be issued. Skipping bail can also result in consequences like the suspension of a driver's license.

Though the term bail is most common, this can also be referred to as a cash bond. Bail can also be fulfilled with a property bond, which refers to using something like real estate as collateral against the bail amount.

What Is a Bond Bail?

The most common form of bond in this situation, and what is typically referred to when someone is said to be "out on bond," is a surety bond, or a payment made by a third-party bondsman or bonding company. This is a common method used when a defendant can't afford the requested amount and needs assistance in making bail.

To secure a bond, the defendant will have to pay a non-refundable fee that is generally a portion of the bail amount. For example, if a bail is set at $250,000, the bond company may require a fee of $25,000. In exchange, the bond company will post bail under the agreement that all court dates will be met. Once bond is put up, the bondsman is responsible for ensuring a defendant meets all required obligations.

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What Are the Primary Differences Between Bond and Bail?

Simply put, the primary difference between bail and bond relates to who is making the payment and how it is being paid. While bail is usually paid for in cash (though it may occasionally be handled in the form of a property bond), a surety bond results in bail being covered by a bonding company. Bonding requires a middleman that can be expensive in its own right, while bail is handled directly with the court. At the end of the day, the bail is still paid, but who ultimately makes the payment will differ.

There are also differences in the consequences for missing a future court date while out on bail or bond. While skipping bail, whether paid in the form of cash or a surety bond, can result in being charged with bail jumping — in many states, this is a felony — skipping out on a bond can result in a more aggressive outcome. If a court date is not made, a bonding company may use a bounty hunter to locate a defendant and return them to custody.

Alternatives to Bond or Bail

There is a third option for release from jail that is similar to paying bail or posting bond, and that's getting released on your own recognizance. This means getting released with no financial obligation under the assumption that a defendant can be trusted to return to court without any financial motivation. This is ideal, but not common for larger charges, like felonies, in which the court is more likely to consider a defendant a flight risk. Attorneys will often argue for this option, as it's ideal for a client, but if a court sets bail, this is no longer on the table.

No one wants to think about themselves or a loved one getting arrested, but should these circumstances occur, understanding what bail is, what bond is and how these two tools function can be essential to a smooth process.

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