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The Bail Bond System: A History

The bail bond system is an integral part of American history and American justice, yet many people have no idea how it works until they have to know how it works. Here’s a run down of the history and function of the bail system.

American bail law is modeled after the system developed in England. In medieval England, few towns had magistrates, and so it was impractical to keep all petty criminals locked up until their trial date, which might be months later. It was also, however, very difficult to get people to return to court to face trial for their crimes, especially because the punishments they’d potentially face were especially brutal in those times. The English developed the bail system as a way of encouraging accused criminals of appearing before the court by putting up a large sum of money they would forfeit if they did not appear. In 1677, the English Parliament’s Habeas Corpus Act included a provision that all criminals could be released after posting bail, and the English Bill of Rights in 1689 created restrictions against “excessive bail” that were adopted by the US Constitution.

One of the most important first American laws regarding bail was the Judiciary Act of 1789, which declared that all noncapital offenses (aka, all crimes that were not punishable by death) were bailable. The bail system remained mostly unchanged until 1966, when Congress passed the groundbreaking Bail Reform Act, which was meant to address some of the gross inequality and classism inherent in the bail system. Poor people were commonly unable to meet bail, sitting in jail for months for charges that might eventually be dropped or for which they would be acquitted. Not only were the jails overcrowded, but filled with a disproportionate number of poorer people. It also repealed the Judiciary Act of 1789, and expanded the definition of those who could be held without bail to those who committed egregious crimes, repeat offenders, flight risks, and those who pose a risk to the community.

Here’s a quick rundown of what happens if you’re arrested on suspicion of a crime today:

Firstly, you’ll go to the station to be “booked.” For minor crimes, such as DUIs, you’ll likely have bail set immediately, but for more serious crimes it may take a couple days before you appear before a judge who will set your bail. After your bail is set, you “post” your bail for release until trial. You can either post the entire bail yourself, or partner with a bondsman. If you hire a bail bond company, they will take a percentage of your bail in return for posting the full amount, typically 10 percent. So if your bail is set at $2,000, you will pay the bondsman $200 to post the amount on your behalf. Bail money is returned to the defendant or the bail bond company that posted the bail after the accused appears for trial. If the accused does not appear, the accused loses their bail money if they posted it themselves; if a bondsman posted the bail, they will have to sacrifice the full amount, which is why they hire bail bond recovery agents, also known as “bounty hunters,” to recover fugitives.

The bail bond system is confusing for many, and All City Bail Bonds is proud to help so many people navigate it! For any other questions, call us!