How Cash Bail Works

What is cash bail?

Cash bail is used as a guarantee that a defendant will return for a trial or hearings. The money is returned after they make all necessary court appearances, otherwise the bail is forfeited to the government.

In most places, a standard bail amount is set for any alleged offense, but judges typically have broad discretion to raise or lower it. The judge could also waive bail entirely and release a defendant on their “own recognizance,” which means that a person promises that they will show up when they’re supposed to.

What if a person can’t afford to pay bail?

If a defendant is unable to pay his or her court-determined bail amount, the person can try to use a private bail bond company. These companies agree to be responsible for the defendant’s bail obligation in exchange for a nonrefundable fee, called a bond premium, that is generally 10 to 15 percent of the bail amount. The remainder is secured via collateral — a car, house, jewelry, etc. If a defendant misses a court appearance and the bond company pays, the company will use the collateral to recoup the full amount.

What are the effects of waiting in jail for trial?

Defendants who don’t have the funds to pay a bond premium are forced to await trial in jail. Pretrial detention has dramatically negative effects on the outcome of a defendant’s case: those who are held pretrial are four times more likely to be sentenced to prison than defendants released prior to trial. Pretrial detainees are also likely to make hurried decisions to plead guilty to a lower charge to spend less time behind bars rather than chancing a higher charge and longer sentence at trial.

In addition, the psychological trauma of unnecessary pretrial detention can be devastating. Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old accused of stealing a backpack in New York City. Bail was set at $3,000, and his family couldn’t pay it. Browder languished in jail for three years awaiting trial, spending much of the time in solitary confinement. Eventually, prosecutors dropped the charges against him, but the damage was done — Browder committed suicide soon after his release.

Who is hurt most by cash bail?

Bail practices are frequently discriminatory, with Black and Latino men assessed higher bail amounts than white men for similar crimes by 35 and 19 percent on average, respectively. These discriminatory practices are clearly seen in Maryland, where Black defendants were charged over double the amount of bond premiums than all other races put together, even though Blacks comprise only 30 percent of Maryland’s population.

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