Comedian/satirist John Oliver opened an immense can of worms with his criticism of the American bail system. The segment garnered the attention of the Washington Post, Slate.com, Time magazine and other, perhaps less revered news outlets. Oliver explained the way bail works and alleged that the system, in its current form, disproportionately penalizes the poor.
Bail systems differ from state to state, but the overall objective is the same: Assure that someone who has been arrested for a crime and released from custody will return for his or her future court appearance. At times, the arrestee’s promise may be enough, and he is released on his own recognizance. In other cases, though, there may be a reason not to trust the arrestee’s word, and the court will require a surety.
The surety may be a certain amount of cash or property valued at a certain amount. The exact amount, in theory, takes two things into account: the severity of the crime and the risk that the arrestee will not return for subsequent court dates.
For example, someone charged with a violent crime — armed robbery, say — is facing some serious jail time if convicted. The court will look at things like his record, his financial situation or family ties, connections to the community and history of showing up for court dates. If there is a low risk that the arrestee will not appear, the bail may be set low. Higher-risk bails, though, may be in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. A high flight risk, very serious charges or both can earn even higher bail: Bail was set at $1 million in two recent Raleigh cases involving crimes against children.
If an arrestee cannot personally pay the court, he may use a bail bondsman. The bail bondsman charges the arrestee a fee, usually about 10 percent of the total amount. The bail bondsman is then responsible for making sure the arrestee appears in court.
There are problems with the system that most anyone could have, and may have, anticipated. North Carolina has taken a slightly different approach, but inequities remain. We’ll explain more in our next post.
Source: Findlaw, “Bail & Bonds,” accessed online on June 16, 2105