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Bail and the Bail System: From Arrest to Exoneration

The dreaded event occurs…you or someone you love is arrested. Police take him to the station ask him a few identifying questions and take his picture and fingerprints. One of two things will normally happen next. Police can either give him a ticket and tell him when to show up for court or they can set bail and let him sit in jail until bail gets “posted”.

For minor violations like a DUI, or where the bail amount is low, an arrestee may just get released after signing a promise to return to court when told. However, if your loved one does not get released then he or she must either post bail or remain in jail until his case is over.

First things first: only bail agents, licensed by the California Department of Insurance can negotiate and post bail bonds in California. Ask to see the agent’s license before you give him a dime. You can visit the DOI website.

How Bail Works

Let’s assume the bail amount is $50,000.00 which may sound like a lot but is not uncommon these days. In order to secure your loved one’s freedom while his court case is pending you need to either post $50,000.00 to ensure his return to court or post a “bond”. Cash bail must be in the form of actual cash or a cashier’s check. Understandably, most of us don’t have fifty thousand dollars in cash lying around. Thus, we must call upon the services of the “bail bondsman”.

We can think of a bail bond as something like an insurance policy. The bail bond company posts a bond or a guarantee with the court. They agree that if the arrestee does not return to court as required, the bond company will be responsible for the entire bail amount. For this service the bond company normally charges a fee of ten per cent of the bail amount. In our case, it would cost you a $5,000 fee to a bondsman to post bail if bail was set at $50,000.00. Remember, if you post cash bail, when the case is over you get the cash back. If you use a bail bondsman, the ten per cent fee is his to keep. That fee is his whether you are out on bail for one day, or up to one year. If no case is filed, he still keeps the money. And, after a year, you may have to pay another fee, however, most cases don’t last over a year. A reputable bondsman may also charge a bond fee of around $15.00.


Some bond companies will require collateral before they post your bond. This is to say that in addition to a fee, they want to secure their investment. In our example, if you give a bondsman $5,000.00 on a $50,000.00 bail, he may still want security or collateral on top of that. Collateral could take different forms including: trust deeds to a home, cars or other valuable personal property, or even cash as collateral.

Some bondsman will be satisfied with “signers” as collateral. When you use the services of a bondsman, you will always be required to sign a contract. Read it, it is very one-sided and gives the bond company the right to do almost anything they want to collect money from you or capture you and return you to court if you fail to go on your own. In any event, if you want out of jail and don’t have the cash, you won’t have another choice. Signers, as they are called in the business, are people who are willing to be financially responsible for you if you default on the agreement. Bondsman usually require people with good credit, a steady job and/or significant assets. In this case, the bondsman may be willing to post the bond without taking any collateral. I find that bail amounts under $50,000.00 are often done with no collateral, while higher bail amounts require it.

Bail Amount

Bail amounts are set by a bail schedule. Every county in California has its own bail schedule where there is a set bail amount to correspond to a specific offense for which one could be arrested. All licensed bail agents should have a copy of the bail schedule in their office. In our example above, if you were arrested for felony domestic violence in Los Angeles County, the bail schedule requires that the bail be set not lower than $50,000.00. Felony possession of narcotics is set at $10,000.00. Other offenses have other set bail amounts.

Discounts on bail

Bail fees are set by the California Department of Insurance. That office licenses and governs the bail industry. They say that bail bondsman can charge no more than 10% of the bail amount as a fee. They may also charge certain nominal costs such as a charge to post a bond. Never pay any California bail agent more than ten per cent of the bail amount as a fee for your bond.

In some cases, bondsman can charge slightly less than ten per cent. Some bondsmen are authorized by the Department of Insurance to write bail at 8 %. This is normally for union members or people who have already hired attorney’s attorneys for their cases. Please note: if any bondsman offers to post your bond for less than 8 % it is my belief that they are not complying with Department of Insurance regulations and I would seek another bail bondsman to do business with.

Once your bail bond is posted, you will be released from custody and given a date to appear in court. Be sure to make all of your court dates. If you miss a court date, your bail bond will be ordered forfeited by the court. This action could make you liable for the entire amount of the bond, plus any collections costs incurred by the bondsman. Should you have cash bail posted, missing court could cost you all of that cash.

Bail Reduction and Review

Once the bail amount is set by schedule it can only be changed by a judge. Normally, a judge reviews the bail amounts for inmates at least once a day. A judge could increase, decrease, or leave the bail amount the same. If bail is not posted, the arrestee will see the judge for his initial court appearance within about two days. That judge can also increase, decrease or leave the bail amount the same.

An attorney can also schedule a bail review hearing by making a written request and giving the court and the prosecutor two days notice of such a hearing. At the bail review hearing, the attorney can ask the judge to reduce bail or release the arrestee on his promise to return to court.

Bail exoneration

When the case is over, usually when the case is dismissed or the judge sentences you, the bail is “exonerated”. This means that the bondsman has no further obligation to the court under his bond. Once this happens, be sure and see the court clerk to get a certificate of exoneration. There may be a small fee for this document, but it’s worth it. Take the original to your bondsman, but be sure to keep a copy. This lets the bondsman know that your bond has been exonerated.

Finding a Qualified Bail Bondsman

There are a lot of bail bondsman around the state. As I said earlier, make sure your bondsman is licensed by the Department of Insurance. Make sure his license is in good standing as well. You can do this by searching their name on the Department’s web site.

Like me, many criminal defense lawyers know at least one or two bail bondsman. If the lawyer has worked with the bondsman before, they may know something about his reputation. Finally, many jails have a list of bondsman available to arrestees.

What Questions to Ask the Bondsman

We have already covered the licensing issue. Next, always ask the bondsman if he is authorized to write bail at 8%. This will save you some money. They don’t always offer, so ask.

Ask the bondsman where he is physically located. These days, a bondsman could be hundreds of miles from your jail. This might end up costing you more money in the form of a “posting fee”. That is, if your bondsman has to pay another bondsman to post the actual bail bond at the jail, make sure you don’t have to pay for it.

Ask if the bondsman will require collateral. Some bondsman will right a bond just on the arrestee’s signature, or with the signature of one co-signer and require no additional collateral.

What the Bondsman May Need From You

Every bail bondsman will want a bail application filled out completely. This will ask you for a great deal of personal and financial information. They will likely want some form of identification and of course, they will want money. It is also helpful to have as much information as possible about the arrestee. This might include his location of arrest, reason for arrest, and booking number. Also helpful is having personal information for the arrestee such as address, telephone number, date of birth and the names and telephone numbers of other very close friends or family members. This information can make posting bond much easier and faster. This means your loved one can get out of jail quicker.

Disclaimer: Jeffrey Vallens is a criminal defense attorney in Southern California. This article is intended for general information only and is based purely on California law. Any specific questions about bail can be directed to Mr. Vallens or to any licensed bail agent in California, or to the California Department of Insurance.

You can reach Mr. Vallens at: (818) 783-5700 or (888) 764-4340, or email him at or our online case evaluation page.