Editor's Note: When a Eureka-Wildwood Patch reader brought up an interesting question about the price of bail bonds after we published a story about a West St. Louis County woman charged with assault in relation to driving while intoxicated accident on Friday, it seemed like a great topic to investigate. So I asked a St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney for some answers.
The legal definition of a bail bond is: "A written promise signed by a defendant or a surety (one who promises to act in place of another) to pay an amount fixed by a court should the defendant named in the document fail to appear in court for the designated criminal proceeding at the date and time specified."
The defendant, the defendant's family and friends, or a professional bail bond agent (or bail agent) executes a document that promises to forfeit the sum of money determined by the court to be commensurate with the gravity of the alleged offense if the defendant fails to return for the trial date.
So why do bond dollar amounts seem to vary over such a wide range?
Ed Magee, executive assistant with the St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney's Office, tells Patch bail bond amounts derive from a formula, of sorts. He said the whole purpose of bonds is get people to show up for court dates.
"Bonds are meant to be fair, not punitive. The courts set bond amounts, after police make arrests," said Magee.
"Thirty some-odd judges review and sign off on the charges after arrests in St. Louis County. Their different opinions can influence the bond amounts."
Just like what's historically been positioned as "flight risks" on TV shows and movies, Magee said judges do consider factors related to the likelihood of whether people charged with violations actually will appear in court. Those factors include whether the violator is from the immediate area, or perhaps not from the United States.
Magee said two other important elements of the formula are the type of crime and the arrest history of each person. He said what the general public does not see are patterns of repeat offenders, which definitely can influence a judges' perspective on bond amounts.
Extra requirements also can be tagged onto bonds, particularly for domestic violence charges. For example, Magee said a judge can make "no contact with the victim of a domestic incident" as one of the conditions for bail.
"With Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) charges, a judge can say a person cannot drink in public places during the time period leading up to the court date, or that there absolutely can be no drinking and driving, period, until the court date," he said.
Another example Magee provided is when someone repeatedly has been caught shoplifting. A judge may indicate that person no longer can shop at the given store from which the person has been caught stealing.
Magee said that for bonds $5,000 or less, an automatic 10 percent cash system is in place. So if people charged with $5,000 bonds happen to have $500 cash with them, they can bail themselves out quickly.
Any bond is subject to change prior to the relevant hearing, Magee said. "Given each violator's circumstances, a defendant's lawyer can request the bond be lowered or revoked. For example, if someone is a first-time offender and they are a pillar of their community, or have a low-paying job, or have children that depend on them, lawyers can suggest a different amount."
He said prosecuting attorneys and judges also can request bond amounts and conditions be changed or raised, based on evidence.
Magee said all these factors are applied on case-by-case basis, which is why some bonds may seem high or questionable to people, compared to the different categories of violations.