Bail: How to Get Out of Jail

Bail is cash, property, or a bond paid to the court in exchange for a person’s pretrial release from jail.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

After being arrested, a person typically has one of two options—sit in jail or pay bail. Paying bail means the person can stay in the community pending trial, as long as they show up to court as required.

We've all seen bail play out in the movies: You get a phone call in the middle of the night. It's a friend calling to ask: "Will you bail me out of jail?" On screen, it looks simple—post bail and give the friend a ride home. But how does bail actually work in the real world?

What Is Bail? What Is a Bail Bond?

Bail is money, property, or a bond paid to the court in exchange for a defendant's release from jail while awaiting trial. The purpose of bail is to ensure that defendants, once released, show up for future court dates. If the defendant doesn't appear back in court at the required time, the court can keep the money or property (called bail forfeiture) and issue a warrant for the defendant's arrest.

A defendant might pay for bail in cash or by depositing property with the court. However, not many defendants can afford to post the full amount of bail, so instead, they post a bail bond. A defendant secures a bail bond usually by paying a private bail bond company a nonrefundable premium (or fee)—often 10% of the full bail amount. The bond company then guarantees payment of the full bail amount to the court if the defendant doesn't show up for court dates as required. Because the bond company could become liable for the full bail amount, it will usually require the defendant (or bond purchaser) to put up some sort of collateral (like the defendant's car or house) to cover its potential liability.

A bail bond tends to be a more expensive option than posting cash bail. Cash bail paid directly to the court will be returned (minus a small processing fee) as long as the defendant makes all court appearances, even if the defendant is convicted. With bail bonds, the defendant (or bond purchaser) is out the 10% fee no matter what happens.

How Is Bail Set?

A judge or magistrate typically sets bail at the first court appearance, either a bail hearing or arraignment. In some cases, a defendant might have the option to post bail at the police station immediately after arrest. While this option speeds up the release process, the defendant will need to pay the amount listed in the bail schedule and won't be able to argue for an amount lower than what's listed.

A bail schedule lists standard bail amounts for common criminal charges in that jurisdiction. For instance, a bail schedule might recommend $20,000 for felony burglary charges and $1,000 for misdemeanor trespassing charges. Only a judge or magistrate can raise or lower (or waive) bail at a hearing.

What Factors Influence the Bail Amount?

The seriousness of the charges generally determines the bail amount found in the bail schedule. Judges often review additional factors, such as a defendant's criminal history, community ties, finances, and financial responsibilities. The judge is evaluating whether the defendant will return to court or harm anyone if released. The higher the defendant's flight or public safety risk, the higher the judge will likely set bail. In some states, judges can deny bail.

Some jurisdictions use risk assessment tools that calculate a score judges can use to help decide whether to release a defendant pretrial and, if so, under what conditions. If a defendant doesn't pose a flight or public safety risk, the court might release the defendant on recognizance (or promise to appear). Release on recognizance (O.R.) means the defendant doesn't have to pay bail, but judges usually place some conditions on a defendant's release.

What If I Can't Pay Bail or Bond?

If a defendant can't afford to post bail or a bail bond and is unable to get out of jail, some states allow or require a bail review hearing. At this hearing, the judge will typically consider the defendant's ability (or inability) to pay bail and examine the defendant's financial resources as well as responsibilities (such as childcare and rent). If the court determines the defendant is financially unable to post bail, the court might reduce the bail amount, release the defendant O.R., or in some states, allow alternatives to paying bail (such as community service).

What Are Bail Conditions?

In addition to, or in lieu of, bail, courts can order pretrial supervision and other conditions of release. For instance, a judge releasing a defendant O.R. might order conditions, such as:

  • electronic monitoring (like an ankle bracelet)
  • regular meetings or check ins with a probation officer
  • drug or alcohol treatment or monitoring, and
  • travel restrictions.

Other common conditions of release include stay-away orders (to protect victims), passport surrender, weapons prohibitions, and a general order not to break any laws. Violation of any of these conditions could result in bail forfeiture, rearrest, or being jailed until trial.

See a Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you or someone you know has been arrested, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can help secure your release and argue for favorable bail and release terms. It's important to seek legal help when facing any criminal charges or proceedings.

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