If you have been arrested, your first court appearance may be a hearing to determine your bail. This is the amount that you need to pay to avoid staying in jail throughout the duration of your case. Bail represents a commitment to show up in court when required. Certain guidelines may apply to setting the amount of bail, but judges ultimately have discretion to deviate from those guidelines by either increasing or reducing the amount. In some cases, a judge may grant a defendant release on their own recognizance, which means that they do not need to pay any bail at all. (Read more here about getting released on your own recognizance.) In other cases, a judge may not grant bail if they believe that the defendant is a flight risk or a danger to the community, or if the defendant has a warrant in another jurisdiction.
You can post bail directly, or you can cover it by purchasing a bond from a bail bond company. Often, family members handle this process for a defendant. An attorney can represent you at a bail hearing, but they generally will not help a defendant pay bail.
Some states allow defendants to post bail with the police before they go to their first court appearance. The required amount of bail will depend on the crime that the defendant allegedly committed. If you were arrested on suspicion of committing a felony, you may need to pay as much as 10 times more than if you were arrested for a misdemeanor. You can get out of jail immediately if you can pay this amount, rather than waiting for a bail hearing.
A key difference between police bail schedules and bail determinations by judges is that a judge has discretion to alter the amount. They can consider many different factors, such as a defendant’s criminal history, employment status, and ties to the community. These intangible factors do not affect the bail schedule in a jail. If you are unwilling to pay the amount required by the bail schedule, you likely will need to go to court and present your case to a judge.
Another option in some states is getting bail through a duty judge. These judges can assess a defendant’s situation and determine a bail amount in a phone hearing. The defendant does not need to go to court. A duty judge may be more flexible than the police in setting the amount of bail, but they may be less thorough in evaluating your situation than a regular judge.
Problems with Using Bail Schedules
Many defendants are arrested for the most serious possible crime under the circumstances. Someone who is found in possession of drugs, for example, may be charged with drug trafficking rather than drug possession if there is any evidence to suggest trafficking, even if possession is much more plausible. This means that the bail amount under a bail schedule may be much higher than necessary. The prosecutor may reduce the level of the charge soon afterward, but this will not affect the amount that the defendant must pay under a bail schedule.