The Bail Process in Pennsylvania
The right to be free from incarceration before a criminal trial is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution, which is consistent with the equally sacrosanct principle of our criminal justice system: the presumption of innocence. This important protection is designed to guard against the harmful consequences of incarceration, for even a brief duration, such as, for example, the loss of employment, the loss of a home, and even, in some instances, the loss of custody of one’s children. It further recognizes the broader societal impact of incarceration, including sustained traumatic effects on inmates and the increased risk of recidivism.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, bail is set in almost all cases, including misdemeanors and felonies, except murder cases punishable with a life sentence or the death penalty. Also, a court may deny bail if that is the only possible way to make sure the defendant appears in court. Pursuant to Article I, Section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, “[a]ll prisoners shall be bailable by sufficient sureties, unless for capital offenses or for offenses for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment or unless no condition or combination of conditions other than imprisonment will reasonably assure the safety of any person and the community when the proof is evident….”
Bail is used by Pennsylvania criminal courts to ensure that defendants charged with crimes will not flee the jurisdiction while awaiting trial. Bail is cash, a bond, or property that an arrested person gives to a court to ensure that he or she will appear in court when ordered to do so. If the defendant fails to appear for a hearing, the court may keep the bail and issue a warrant for the defendant’s arrest.
In Pennsylvania, bail is set after a defendant has a bail hearing before a Judge. At the bail hearing the defendant’s charges are read and the Judge will hear arguments from the District Attorney and the lawyer representing the defendant. The defendant and defendant’s family, friends, or character witnesses may speak as well. The Judge will also review documentation and other available information about the defendant.
In determining the conditions of bail, the court may consider the following factors for a specific case:
- The nature and severity of the alleged crime and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances regarding the alleged crime
- The defendant’s employment history, nature of employment, and financial means
- The defendant’s criminal history of arrests and convictions
- The defendant’s residence, familial relationships, and ties to the community
- The defendant’s likelihood of fleeing or posing a risk to public safety
- The defendant’s prior history of failure to appear in court.
As set forth in 234 Pa. Code Rule 524, the available options for bail include the following:
Release on Recognizance (ROR): If a defendant is given ROR, she must sign a form agreeing to be present at all court appearances. This is typically available for cases in which it is the defendant’s first arrest, no violence was involved and the defendant has strong ties to the community such as employment and family connections.
Release on Non-monetary Conditions: Rather than placing financial restrictions on the Defendant, the court places non-monetary conditions on him. This type of bail, for example, may include travel restrictions on a defendant, surrender of her passport, surrender of weapons, compliance with a stay-away or domestic abuse order, remain drug and alcohol-free, continue mental health treatment or enroll in any drug/alcohol, anger management, or parenting programs, and maintain employment.
Release on Unsecured Bail Bond. The defendant is required to sign an agreement stating that he will be liable for a certain amount of money if he fails to appear, or if he violates other conditions of bail. For example, bail may be set at $10,000.00, unsecured. As long as the defendant complies with all bail requirements, the $10,000.00 is not required to be paid. However, if the defendant violates her bail conditions, the $10,000.00 must be paid for the defendant to be released, unless the violation results in a revocation of bail or an increase in the bail amount.
Release on Nominal Bail. In this case, release is conditioned upon the defendant’s depositing a nominal amount of cash that the court determines is sufficient security for the defendant’s release, such as $1.00, and the agreement of a designated person, organization, or bail agency to act as surety for the defendant. The Bail Bondsman is typically the designated person or agency that provides surety or “posts bond” with the court to act as surety for the defendant. To ensure the defendant’s compliance, the Bail Bondsman often requires collateral for posting the bond, such as attaching a lien to the defendant’s or a family member’s home. A bondsman’s fee is typically ten percent of the bail figure. If a defendant has no cash available, some bondsmen may accept items like automobiles or jewelry as collateral
Release on a Monetary Condition. In this situation, release is conditioned upon the defendant’s compliance with a monetary condition imposed. In this situation, the defendant must pay the full amount of cash, or collateral equal or greater than the cash amount is posted (real estate, automobile). Rule 524 provides that the monetary condition “shall not be greater than is necessary to reasonably ensure the defendant’s appearance and compliance with the conditions of the bail bond.”
The attorneys at Tanner Law Offices can help you understand the Pennsylvania bail process and help facilitate your release from custody, as well as protect other important rights. Please contact our office at 717-731-8114 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.