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Bail primer: what you need to know

Many people have a general idea of what bail is but don't understand the specifics. If you, a friend or a loved one ever needs to post bail to be released from jail, it's important to know how the bail system works.

What is bail?

Bail is the release of a criminal defendant, in exchange for a promise from the defendant that he or she will return for future court proceedings. In some cases, defendants have to pay for their release.

What does “own recognizance” mean?

This means you promise to appear in court at a later date, but you don't have to pay for your release. In deciding whether to release individuals on their “own recognizance,” a judge will consider the seriousness of the crime; criminal history; ties to the community; and whether the person is a threat to the public, according to FindLaw.

If you’re released but fail to appear for a scheduled court date, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest.

What is "cash bail"?

This is when you have to pay an amount of money to be released from custody.

What are typical bail amounts in Alabama?

Here are some of the recommended bail amounts in the state, according to the Alabama Unified Judicial System's website: 

  • Capital (death penalty) cases: $50,000 to no bail 
  • Murder: $15,000 to $150,000
  • Class A felony: $10,000 to $60,000
  • Drug manufacturing and trafficking: $5,000 to $1.5 million
  • Class A misdemeanor: $300 to $6,000
  • DUI: $1,000 to $7,500

Those bail ranges are large. How is the amount decided?

Judges consider many factors when deciding bail amounts, including:

  • Whether the offense involves violence or other dangers to the community
  • The evidence against the defendant
  • Whether the person is at risk to leave the area and not return
  • Whether the defendant has a criminal history

What’s a bail bond?

FindLaw puts it this way: "A bond is much like a check that you give to a friend, asking him or her not to cash it until you say it's O.K. to do so." Bail bond companies sell the bonds. The price of a bond is a percentage of the total bail amount. 

Is there a right to bail?

The U.S. Constitution guarantees that bail should not only be available, but also that it not be excessive. The Eighth Amendment says, in part: "Excessive bail shall not be required."

Similarly, the Alabama constitution reads: "That all persons shall, before conviction, be bailable by sufficient sureties, except for capital offenses, when the proof is evident or the presumption great; and that excessive bail shall not in any case be required."

Why have I heard about bail in the news lately?

Bail reform is a hot issue. There is growing concern that bail unfairly penalizes low-income individuals. In California, for example, the median bail amount is $50,000, according to the Sacramento Bee. New Jersey has enacted bail reform, and other states are considering it, including California.

What's happening in Alabama in regard to bail changes? 

As of July 2017, 75 cities in Alabama, including Mobile, have changed their bail practices. In many of Alabama's municipal courts, individuals now charged with a misdemeanor other than a DUI or domestic violence offense don't have to post bond to get out of jail, according to USA Today.

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