Working With a Bail Bondsman

Bondsmen make a living by lending people money for bail.1  Normally, defendants (or their friends or family) pay a bondsman 10% of the total bail for making this loan.  This 10% is the bondsman’s fee—it’s not given back when the case is over.

For example, if your bail were $10,000, you’d pay $1,000 to the bondsman.  Then the bondsman would give the court a “surety bond” for $10,000.2  As long as you made all your court appearances, the surety bond would be dissolved at the end of the case.  So the bondsman’s profit would be the $1,000 you paid him at the outset.  However, if you skipped town and weren’t caught, the bondsman would have to pay the court $10,000. 

So bondsmen won’t agree to make bail for just anyone—they look at the very same factors, positive and negative, that judges consider in evaluating a defendant for bail.  Also, bondsmen much prefer to have a co-signor to the bail contract.  The co-signor is a relative or friend who promises to pay the entire amount of the bail (reimbursing the bondsman for the surety bond), if you go on permanent vacation.  The bondsman is a surety to the court, and the co-signor is a surety to the bondsman.

Before calling a bondsman, have all your information ready (character references, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, etc.), so that you can make the phone call as efficient as possible.  If you’re calling from jail, you may have very limited time to use the phone, so you’ll need to be well-organized (and this will also be a point in your favor with the bondsman).

Bondsmen often require collateral, in addition to 10% of the total bail.  The collateral is returned to whomever provided it, once the case is concluded and the surety bond is dissolved.  Collateral can be a piece of land, a house, a business, stocks or bonds, a life insurance policy, a vehicle, or even jewelry.  Some bondsmen will only accept liens3 on land or houses.  It’s important to realize that collateral is forfeit if the defendant skips town.  For example, if someone’s house is put up as collateral and the defendant disappears, the house can be seized.4

Collateral can also be cash, which is always acceptable.  Cash collateral is money paid to the bondsman, beyond his fee.  The bondsman returns the cash collateral, once the case is over (unlike the fee, usually 10% of the total bail, which the bondsman keeps). 

If defendants refuse to come to court or if they run away, they can be arrested and kept in custody by the bondsmen and their “recovery agents” (bounty hunters), who then turn the defendants over to the authorities.

Note that most bondsmen charge an additional fee (another 10% of the total bail) each year, because they have to renew the surety bond.  So if the case drags on for more than 12 months, and many do, you might have to pay the bondsman more money.  Check with your lawyer about alternatives, such as getting the bail reduced or “exonerated” (terminated), or posting collateral with the court.  Start dealing with this at least a month before the year is up, so that you won’t be rushed.

Bondsmen don’t always charge 10% of the bail as their fee.  Sometimes they can charge a lower rate, such as 8%, if the bail is very large, or the defendant has a private attorney, or is a union member, etc.  The range within which bondsmen can set their fees is governed by state law.  Definitely check with your lawyer if the bondsman is quoting you a rate that’s over 10%.

Bondsmen are licensed by the state in which they operate.  If the bondsman’s license number isn’t on his business card or paperwork, ask to see the license before doing business (this is understood as common sense, not rudeness).  Make sure to read and keep copies of all the paperwork you do with the bondsman, especially the documents you sign.

When should you seek the services of a bondsman?  The answer depends on several factors:
  • Can your friends and family can make bail themselves, instead of going through a bondsman?  It’s possible to save lots of money this way, since the bondsman’s 10% fee is non-refundable—even if the charges are dismissed as soon as the defendant gets to court.5
  • Can a lawyer get the bail lowered?  Most private criminal defense lawyers will talk to you for free for a little while, as both parties need to have some discussion to decide whether or not to work together.  One of the important issues to bring up is whether the lawyer thinks the judge will reduce the bail.  Say the initial bail was $100,000, but at the bail hearing, the lawyer gets the judge to lower it to $20,000.  By waiting for the hearing, you’d have saved a lot of money.  If you were making the bail yourself, you’d have kept $80,000 from being tied up.  And if you were going through a bondsman, you’d have saved $8,000 (because you’d pay the bondsman $2,000 instead of $10,000). 
  • Can you stand to stay in jail for a while?  Generally, to get the bail lowered, the defendant will have to remain in jail for a day, or perhaps several days, until the bail hearing.  Some people feel they can stick it out, while others need to be bailed out immediately.6  Explain your priorities to your friends and family, so they don’t just assume what you’d want.  If their resources are really limited, make sure to tell them whether to spend money on a bondsman, a lawyer, or neither.

1.   Four states—Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin—do not have bail bondsmen.  They still have bail, but their legislatures have prohibited the business of making bail bonds.  Some of these states do allow the payment of 10% of the bail, rather than the whole amount, but it goes to the court, not to a bondsman.

2.   Surety is derived from the same Latin root as the word "insurance."  In this context, a surety is the person who promises to pay a loan, if the actual debtor fails to do so.

3.   A "lien" is the right to take possession of a particular item of property, if a debt isn't paid.  For example, if a house is being used as collateral for a bail bond, the bondsman will "take a lien on the house."

4.   People who put up bail or collateral really can lose everything when a defendant skips town.  Too many grandmothers have ended up broke and homeless this way.

5.   Watch out, however, if you use a credit card to pay the bail.  The interest rates on credit cards can be very high, so it's important to pay the balance or get it transferred to a card with a low interest rate, if the case isn't going to be resolved right away.

6.   A little time in jail can be a golden opportunity to gather material for the best-selling book you plan to write.