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How Much Does It Cost to Go to Jail?

You’re right, it hardly seems fair that you have to pay for the privilege of having your freedom taken away, especially if you haven’t even been convicted yet, charged with a crime yet, haven’t had your case tried yet, or are simply waiting for transportation to where you will go to trial.

However, just like everything else, there are costs involved, costs that you will have to pay out-of-pocket.

These costs, of course, vary depending upon your situation, the crime of which you are accused, whether you are facing state or federal charges, and what state you live in (or what state your crime occurred in).

Let’s just cover pre-sentencing for now. The situation changes dramatically if you are convicted and have to serve time.

Bail is for those who are arrested and taken into custody:

  • If you are arrested in the process of committing a crime.
  • If you have an outstanding warrant and are picked up by the police, FBI, DEA, or the Marshals Service.
  • If you are stopped for one thing (the infamous broken tail-light, for example) and the police find indications that you are committing or have committed a crime.
  • If you have been accused of a crime and charges are now being filed against you.

For some, especially non-violent, cases, the judge may grant you the possibility of paying bail instead of cooling your heels in jail until your case is heard. Bail is literally your get out of jail card. But it’s not free!

The money that you deposit with court is your guarantee that you will show up at your court date. If you don’t appear, the court will keep the bail you have deposited, and issue an arrest warrant.

Bail can be paid with:

  • Cash or check for the full amount of the bail set.
  • Property worth the full amount of the bail.
  • A bond that you secure from a bail bondsman—the bond costs 10% of your full bail amount, plus an administrative fee. Some bondsmen may also require collateral.
  • You may also be released on your own recognizance—no money or security required.

The judge is the person who sets the bail amount, not your attorney (if you have one), not the prosecutor, not the bail bondsman. However, if your crime is relatively common, many jails have standard bail schedules. You can get out of jail quickly by paying the bail amount on that schedule, instead of waiting for one to several days to see a judge at your arraignment.

Remember that bail is granted with certain requirements that you must follow: terms of release. The terms are specific for each case, usually along the lines of obeying all laws, not leaving the city or state, etc. If you violate those requirements, or don’t show up for your court date, you will forfeit all money or property you have deposited as bail.

Securing an Attorney

You may or may not require an attorney, depending on your case. Frankly, though, it’s better to have someone on your side who understands the system.

Depending on your needs, an attorney can cost you $200 – $600 an hour or more. Fortunately, law firms frequently have clerks who bill at a lower rate, and who can do some of the grunt work. How to find an attorney who is qualified for your case? By personal referral, or lawyer referral services. Be sure to meet with the lawyer before hiring them, and understand what their qualifications are and what their specific experience is. That first meeting should be free. Do NOT hire an attorney who wants to charge for that first meeting.

If you cannot afford an attorney (and many of us cannot), the court can appoint one for you. There is no cost for a public defender. Although they are in fact “real” lawyers, public defenders tend to be drastically overworked and underpaid. They do their best, but they will not be able to devote as much attention to your case as you might wish. If the court appoints a public defender for you, you are stuck with them. You may not change to another attorney without a very, very good reason. On the plus side, besides the fact that they are free, public defenders are there to see that justice is done. They most likely know everyone in your court system. They have access to the resources of the public defenders’ office, including investigators. Talk to your public defender immediately after they are assigned, and see what similar experiences they have. How many cases have they handled? What will be their strategy for your case?

Other Expenses

You will be responsible for your own transportation and parking to and from the courthouse, your attorney’s office, and any other court required services. If you are required to be under medical or psychiatric care, you are responsible for those costs. If you need to provide any kind of documentation, you are responsible for the costs involved in securing those documents (court, city, county, state, or federal fees) and postage as well.

And all this is BEFORE you even get to trial, or serve your sentence!

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