This suspect is on his way to a police station to be booked, after which he may be able to post bail.

Photo used under GNU Free Documentation License

If you watch much television, you’ve probably seen variations of this scene dozens of times: a judge bangs a gavel and announces, “Bail is set at $100,000.” The defendant looks despondent as he consults with his lawyers. But somehow he ends up free while waiting for his trial to begin. One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money to come up with -- how did he afford it? And what did it mean when the defense attorney claimed his client was not a “flight risk”?

Bail works by releasing a defendant in exchange for money that the court holds until all proceedings and trials surrounding the accused person are complete. The court hopes that the defendant will show up for his or her court dates in order to recover the bail.

In many cases, trials can begin weeks or months after an initial arrest, and if not for bail, many people, some of whom might be innocent, would have to wait in jail until their trials began. At the minimum, this can present a financial hardship, as the person would be unable to work. And, the person would also be missing his or her life -- family events, holidays, etc. Not everyone who is released on bail is eventually acquitted, so to prevent particular dangerous suspects from being released, several safeguards have been built into bail law. In this article, we’ll learn about those safeguards, how the bail process works and how this system has changed since it was first started in England centuries ago.