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Getting arrested and needing to post bail can be an incredibly stressful and expensive experience. Many people simply don’t have thousands of dollars sitting around to pay the full bail amount. Fortunately, there are options for getting low cost or even free bail assistance if you find yourself in this situation.
First, let’s review what bail is and how the system works. Bail is money or property provided to the court to secure someone’s release from jail while they await trial. Judges set the bail amount based on factors like the severity of the alleged crime, the defendant’s criminal history, and their deemed flight risk.
If you can pay the full bail amount, you or a bail bondsman pay it to the court. When you show up for all required court appearances, the bail money is returned at the end of the case (minus any fees). If you miss a court date, you forfeit the bail money.
Many people don’t have enough cash savings to pay bail upfront. This is where a bail bondsman comes in – they will post your bail for a fee, usually 10% of the total bail amount. You don’t get this fee back even if you show up to court. Bail bondsmen make money by collecting fees from many clients over time.
If the judge sets an extremely high bail you can’t afford, your criminal defense lawyer can file a motion asking the judge to reduce the amount. They’ll argue that the current bail is excessive based on factors like your financial situation, criminal record, and ties to the community.
According to criminal defense lawyer John Rodriguez, “Filing a bail reduction motion should be a top priority if bail is set higher than you can manage. Judges don’t want to see people stuck in jail just because they’re poor.”
While a bail reduction isn’t guaranteed, it’s always worth trying if the amount seems unreasonable. Provide as much evidence as possible about your financial hardship, clean record, and strong community ties. The judge may agree to lower the bail to an amount you can actually pay.
Some states like New Jersey, Alaska, and New Mexico have banned cash bail entirely. Judges in these states can’t set monetary conditions for pretrial release at all. Advocates argue cash bail disproportionately impacts poor defendants. Efforts to eliminate cash bail are spreading, but it remains the norm in most states for now.
If you can’t afford to pay the full bail amount upfront, using a bail bond company is the most common option. You pay the bonding company a nonrefundable fee, usually 10% of the total bail, and they pay the rest to the court.
Bonding companies make money by collecting fees from many clients over time. They will do a background check to assess your flight risk before agreeing to post bond. The fee may be negotiable if you have an especially clean record.
Ask friends or family for bonding company recommendations. Shop around and compare fees. Reputable bonding companies belong to the Professional Bail Agents of the United States and follow codes of ethics.
The downside is the nonrefundable fee. And if you miss a court date, the bonding company can legally pursue and detain you themselves to avoid forfeiting the full bail amount. But for many, paying 10% is more feasible than 100%.
Ask trusted friends or family members if they can contribute to your bail fund. Be honest about the arrest and your dire financial situation. Make a plan to pay them back in installments if needed.
Online fundraising through GoFundMe or similar sites is another option if you don’t have direct connections able to help. Share your story widely on social media to get donations from acquaintances and strangers.
Crowdfunded bail support gained attention when the Bronx Freedom Fund in New York City pioneered this approach. The fund has paid bail for thousands of low-income defendants. Similar community bail funds now exist across the country.
All defendants have a right to an attorney, even if they can’t afford to hire one. Public defenders are lawyers appointed by the court to represent indigent clients for free.
Many public defenders have good relationships with judges and prosecutors. They can advocate for an affordable bail amount or reduction on your behalf. Though public defenders juggle large caseloads, don’t dismiss them as an option.
Eligibility for a public defender is based on your financial situation. Those above the poverty line may have to repay some costs later. But initially, a public defender’s representation comes at no upfront cost to the defendant.
If the judge agrees bail is warranted but you truly can’t pay, ask for unsecured rather than secured bail. The judge sets bail but doesn’t make you put up any money or collateral.
You simply sign a promise that you’ll pay the bail amount if you fail to appear in court. This relies on your word rather than cash or property. Judges may approve unsecured bail if you have an exceptionally clean record and strong community ties.
According to the nonprofit Pretrial Justice Institute, “Unsecured bonds allow defendants to be released without financial cost, yet retain court appearance incentives.” Unsecured bail puts less burden on poor defendants.
Judges can also release defendants on their own recognizance (OR). This means you’re released without needing to pay bail at all. You simply promise to return to court for required hearings.
Like unsecured bail, OR release relies on your word and integrity rather than cash. The court believes you aren’t a flight risk and will show up voluntarily. Factors like steady employment, residency, and lack of criminal record help secure OR release.
OR release is great when granted, but less likely for serious crimes like murder or rape. Still, it’s worth requesting if you’re truly unable to pay bail but have shown responsibility in the past.
Various nonprofits and charities can help people who can’t afford bail. They pay bail for those in need through fundraising and donations.
For example, the Bail Project has revolving funds in cities across the country. They pay bail for clients and get the money back at the end of cases to help more people. The Bronx Freedom Fund similarly pays bail for hundreds unable to afford it.
Search for “bail fund” and your city or state to find local charities. Or contact large national groups like the Bail Project and National Bail Fund Network. Apply for help and provide information on your case. If approved, they pay part or all of your bail directly to the court.
Charity eligibility is based on financial need, not criminal charges. Bail funds believe poverty shouldn’t keep people stuck in jail pretrial when they’re still legally innocent.
Some bail bonds companies offer their own assistance programs beyond regular bonding services. For example, Bad Boys Bail Bonds awards scholarships to help clients struggling to post bond.
Others provide low or no interest loans to cover the 10% bondsman fee. Ask bondsmen about payment plans, scholarships, loans, or discounted fees. They want to make some money rather than none if clients can’t afford their services.
Bondsmen associations and advocacy groups like the American Bail Coalition also offer scholarships and grants. These programs are newer and less common, but can provide critical help for underserved groups.
Navigating bail and bonds can be extremely confusing, especially for those who can’t afford lawyers. But know you have rights even as a low-income defendant.
Excessive bail is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Bail amounts must be based on your specific circumstances, not set extremely high across the board.
Groups like the ACLU, public defenders, and civil rights nonprofits can provide information on your rights. Seek free legal aid to assist with bail reduction motions, OR release requests, and related advocacy.
And don’t forget options like public defenders, bail charities, and crowdfunding. You have more support than you may realize, even if you can’t afford bail on your own.
Coming up with bail money is incredibly hard for millions of low-income Americans every year. Unaffordable bail leads to mass pretrial detention and pressure to plead guilty just to get out of jail.
But with some knowledge and creativity, you can access low or no cost bail assistance. Ask for bail reductions, use community bail funds, crowdfund, take advantage of charity programs, and know your rights.
The cash bail system is deeply flawed. But until reform happens, these strategies can help you or a loved one avoid the nightmare of pretrial incarceration due to poverty alone. Don’t lose hope if you’re unable to pay bail at first. With persistence and help, freedom may still be within reach.
Criminal Justice Policy Program – Bail Reform: A Guide for State and Local Policymakers
Pretrial Justice Institute – Key Terms
The Bail Project – Home
ACLU – Ending Money Bail
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