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What is 'bail' and what is a 'bail bond'?

Bail and bail bonds have been an integral part of Pennsylvania's criminal law system since the founding of the commonwealth, but the meaning of these terms is not well understood by the public at large.

The term "bail" means the release from custody of a person charged with a crime or, in certain circumstances, of a person who has been convicted of a crime. Bail has been part of Anglo-American criminal procedure for centuries, and the bail system in Pennsylvania inherits many of its features from this history and from the United States Constitution. A "bail bond" is security, usually in the form of money paid into court, that ensures that the person will return for all court hearings and trial.

The court is given wide latitude in deciding whether a person facing criminal charges should be released on bail and what conditions may be imposed on the prisoner during his or her release, but the state's Rules of Criminal Procedure specify certain factors that must be considered. These include the nature of the offense, the defendant's financial condition, the defendant's age, character, reputation and mental condition, any prior criminal record, and whether the defendant has any record of leaving the jurisdiction to avoid arrest or prosecution.

The bail bond is both the document prepared by the court that specifies the amount of any financial security to be given by the prisoner and any other conditions that the court chooses to impose and the security itself. Usually the defendant is given a deadline for paying the bond amount; if no payment is made by the specified deadline, the prisoner is not released. If a defendant violates any provision of the bond, the amount paid into court is forfeited to the court. If the defendant obeys the term of the bond, the security is returned at the close of trial.

The process of seeking release on bail and negotiating the terms of the bond almost always require the services of an experienced criminal lawyer. Any person who is charged with a crime and wishes to be released on bail may wan to retain a knowledgeable attorney to represent him or her.

Source: Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, "Ch. 5, Part C, "Bail," accessed on Feb. 7, 2015

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