How is Bail Set and Why is Bail Set So High?
When most people hear about a court imposing a bail amount of $1 million or more, they automatically assume the person must be charged with mass murder or some similarly heinous crime. Actually, defendants considered that dangerous rarely get bail at all.
Large bail amounts usually mean that the court thinks there’s a chance the person might not return for trial or the court believes the defendant is dangerous to society. Someone might be willing to lose $50,000 to stay out of jail, but $500,000 or more? That’s a powerful incentive to show up – hence the large bail amount.
Consider the circumstances of these two California cases:
- Jeffrey Gordon Butler just went on trial in Santa Ana. He’s charged with 874 felony counts for allegedly cheating 125 elderly people out of their life savings. He had been held in jail since 2006 in lieu of $10 million bail.
- A former Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, Chu Vue, was released on a $500,000 bail, “10 times the usual amount for the weapons charge he faces.” Police believe that Vue may have also been involved in planning the murder of a prison guard who was having an affair with his wife, although he hasn’t been charged.
In both cases, the large bail amount reflects the fact that the defendants are facing serious charges. Uncertainty about the outcome could give the defendants a reason to avoid trial by leaving the court’s jurisdiction. When defendants are facing possible jail time, the risk of flight is greater.
That’s a big reason courts often increase – or even deny – bail. Judges also consider several other factors including:
- Risk to the community – if the defendant has a history of violent behavior, is a repeat offender, or other factors. Public safety is the first consideration in setting bail.
- Flight risk – if the defendant has a passport, assets or family in another country, or a history of jumping bail.
- Severity of the offense – if the defendant is facing huge fines and/or considerable jail time.
Although minimum bail amounts are predetermined by approved bail schedules in California, judges can impose larger amounts when they think the situation requires it. You’d think that bail bond companies would be eager for that business. After all, a 10% bail fee on a $10 million bond is a cool $1 million. That sounds like quite a windfall for a small business. Many bail bondsmen aren’t eager to attract those clients. Unless the bail bondsman is careful, that $1 million “windfall” could become a $10 million payment to the Court if the defendant doesn’t show up for trial.
With any bail there is significant time, work, and risk involved, but particularly with large bail amounts. The person signing the bail contract has to be able to pay the bail premium and have the resources to pay the whole amount if the defendant skips out on bail. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, and it takes time for the bondsman to verify assets and do background checks.
When you start looking at bail amount over $100,000, it can be difficult to find a solid indemnitor (the person paying the bond and taking responsibility for the defendant to return to court). The courts understand this and set bail accordingly. When an indemnitor has paid out the bond fee and is shouldering the risk of the full bail amount, they are inclined to keep close tabs on defendant and ensure appearance in court. That’s what bail is all about.
Photocredit: Yanik Chauvin – Fotolia.com