Understanding bail, bonds and bonding agencies will help guide you through the system if you ever happen to find yourself or a loved one facing time in jail. Two bail-related questions that everyone deserves clear answers to are where does bail money end up and how can someone earn it back.

First, you need to understand what bail is. Let’s say you get arrested and thrown in jail. If you want to get out of jail and then return for your appointment in court when the time comes, you can pay bail. Bail is the amount of money required in order to set someone free until their time in court. The amount of bail required usually relates to the severity of the crime the person is accused of. Smaller crimes mean smaller bail amounts. In the eyes of the court, bail is their security, because if you don’t return for your court date, they get to keep your bail money. If you do appear in court when expected, your money is returned to you, usually through the mail.

If you can afford it, you can arrange to pay bail yourself. If you can’t afford it, a friend or a family member can come to your rescue. Because most bail is much too high for the average person, there are bail bonds to help people be able to afford their freedom. Bail bondsman pay your bail for you once you’ve signed a contract stating that you will repay them once you have returned to court and have the money in hand. You may need to pay them an additional fee beyond the original bail amount. This will be spelled out in the contract you sign. If you decide to try to evade the legal consequences of your actions by fleeing, the bondsman will do everything in his or her power to find you and get their money back.

This brings us back to the first of our two questions: where does the money go? Once you’ve paid your bail, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. When you originally pay bail, the court system, usually the sheriff assigned to your case, holds on to your money. If you show up when you’re supposed to and you are exonerated of any charges, the money is returned to you within a couple weeks. If you fail to show up to court, a warrant is issued and your claim to the money is forfeited. Bail is a tool that the court uses to guarantee your return to court to face your charges. Between an arrest and a trial, the money stays put so after you attend the trial you can get it back. It’s really as simple as that!