The history of bail is one that is steeped in human rights. It was originally developed during the Anglo-Saxon period of British History (410-1066). It was intended to be a means to resolve issues peacefully. When someone was charged with a crime, it was up to them to find someone else to act as their surety who will agree to pay the settled amount to the victim if the defendant fled.

Today, bail works much the same way, however, when a defendant doesn’t show up for court, the surety money doesn’t go to the victim – it goes to the courts.

How Bail Works Today

When someone is arrested on suspicion of committing a crime, they are taken to the local police or sheriff station to undergo booking and processing. The procedure involves recording the defendant’s fingerprints, taking their picture, and conducting an extensive background check. Once that has been completed, bail will be set for those who are eligible and it will be possible to bail them out with a bail bondsman. Choosing to work with a bail bondsman makes getting someone out of jail very simple. You just fill out a few bail bond application forms, sign the indemnitor’s agreement, and that’s it! A bail agent will be sent to the

Bail can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. When you work with a bail bondsman to secure someone’s release, you pay only a fraction of the total amount of bail (roughly 10%) directly to the bail bondsman as their fee for securing the defendant’s release.

When you bail someone out of jail, you do more than secure their release from police custody. Freedom from jail allows the defendant to continue working and/or attending classes, to make arrangements if they’re expecting to spend a significant amount of time in jail, and to seek legal counsel.  During this period of release, it is up to the bail bondsman, not the police, to keep tabs on the defendant and ensure they show up for court on time. If the defendant does not, it is up to the bail bondsman (again, not the police) to track down the defendant and bring them back into custody. Of course, the police are aware that the defendant skipped bail, and could perform an arrest if they happen to stop the individual, though their main goal isn’t to track the individual down.

So What’s the Matter?

Some people look at the bail system we have and feel that it disproportionately punishes the poor because it’s harder for people of low socioeconomic status to afford it. Bail is set according to the severity of the crime that the defendant is being accused of committing. When a person commits a minor crime (infraction), they are typically given a citation directing them to either pay a fine or show up at the appointed date and time to fight it out in court. A good example of an infraction is speeding on the freeway. Generally, individuals are seldom arrested for speeding. When they are, it’s usually because the police found some other reason to arrest them while performing the stop (an existing warrant or possession of drugs can lead to an arrest during a traffic stop).

When someone commits a crime that is more serious than an infraction, an arrest often comes with it. The defendant will go through the booking and processing procedure outlined above, and then bail will be set according to the crime they are being accused of. If it’s a non-violent crime, bail is usually inexpensive and much easier to afford. When the defendant commits a felony, the cost of bail is often much higher. This is where detractors find fault with the current bail system.

The Argument Against Bail

As mentioned, detractors believe that the bail system in its entirety is stacked against the poor. They believe that the poor often spend longer time in custody simply because they cannot afford to bail themselves out the way rich people can. The thing is, the system already has safeguards in place to help ensure people of low socioeconomic status are able to afford bail. First off, when a defendant goes before a judge and makes it known that they will have difficulty paying for bail, the judge may reduce the amount significantly to make it more affordable. Second, when someone is accused of committing a non-violent charge that is relatively benign, bail can be eliminated altogether and the defendant can go free after paying nothing at all.

Opponents of bail look to take the choice of whether or not a defendant should be released post-arrest out of the hands of the courts. Instead, they would prefer these choices to be made by computer algorithms designed to determine how big of a risk it would be to let that defendant out of custody. Unfortunately, many believe these algorithms to be even more racist against POC than the current criminal justice system. As a matter of fact, the LAPD has discontinued their predictive policing program for those very same reasons.

Top tech executives, including those from Google, IBM, and Apple all have serious misgivings about the fairness of the algorithms law enforcement agencies would use. According to them, the algorithms are more or less accurate when it comes to larger demographics, but when it comes down to the individual, significantly more POC would be kept in custody than their white counterparts, even though they committed the same crime.

Ultimately, making changes to the bail system to allow the few who fall through the cracks to better be able to afford bail is a noble thing to do (it’s also the right thing to do). Doing so by eliminating the entire bail system is throwing the baby out with the bath water. The bail system wasn’t implemented to make people pay to be free from police custody, it was implemented to ensure that those facing serious charges don’t skip bail and fail to attend their court date. When a defendant skips bail, it is the bail bondsman, not the police, who is responsible for tracking them down and  bringing them back to the police. Should bail be abolished, this task (along with the money it costs to perform it) will fall on already beleaguered police force and the tax dollars you pay every year. Currently, bail bondsmen cover all of the costs and perform all of the tasks necessary to ensure those who are bailed out of jail return at the appointed date and time of their court hearing.