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The History of Bail Laws


Roots of US Bail Laws

The United States’ bail system has evolved from a system developed in England during the Middle Ages. The ties between the institution of bail in the United States is also based on the old English system.

Bail Law in England

In medieval England, the sheriffs originally possessed sovereign authority to release or hold suspected criminals. Some sheriffs would exploit the bail for their own gain. The Statute of Westminster (1275) limited the discretion of sheriffs with respect to the bail. Via the statute, bailable and non-bailable offenses were defined, however, the sheriffs retained the authority to decide the amount of bail required.

In the early 17th Century, King Charles I ordered noblemen to issue him loans. Those who refused were imprisoned. Five of the incarcerated filed a habeas corpus petition arguing that they should not be held indefinitely without trial or bail. In the Petition of Right (1628) the Parliament argued that, in violation of the Magna Carta, the King had imprisoned people without just cause.

In 1677, the English parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act, which, among its provisions, established that magistrates would set terms for bail.

The Habeas Corpus Act (1677) states, "A Magistrate shall discharge Prisoners from their Imprisonment taking their Recognizance, with one or more Surety or Sureties, in any Sum according to the Magistrate's discretion, unless it shall appear that the Party is committed for such Matter or offenses for which by law the Prisoner is not bailable."

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 declared restrictions against “excessive bail” and later inspired the Virginia state constitution and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The English Bill of Rights (1689) states that "excessive bail hath been required of persons committed in criminal cases, to elude the benefit of the laws made for the liberty of the subjects. Excessive bail ought not to be required." This was a precursor of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Amendment VIII:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution states that all people under arrest must “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” they face and also allows a person to demand bail if he or she is accused of a bailable offense.

Amendment VI:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Bail Law in the United States

Still, American bail law is actually rooted in legislation. The Judiciary Act of 1789 stated that all noncapital offenses (crimes that did not carry the possibility of the death penalty) were bailable. In the case of capital crimes, the possibility of bail was at the judge’s discretion. The act also placed limits on judges’ powers in setting bail -- think back to the English Bill of Rights’ prohibition against “excessive bail.”

In Colonial America, bail law was based off English law. Some of the colonies simply guaranteed their subjects the protections of British law. In 1776, after the Declaration of Independence, those which had not already done so, enacted their own versions of bail law.

Section 9 of Virginia's 1776 Constitution states "excessive bail ought not to be required..." In 1785, the following was added, "Those shall be let to bail who are apprehended for any crime not punishable in life or limb...But if a crime be punishable by life or limb, or if it be manslaughter and there be good cause to believe the party guilty thereof, he shall not be admitted to bail."

Section 29 of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 states "Excessive bail shall not be exacted for bailable offenses."

The Eighth Amendment in the US Federal Bill of Rights is derived from the Virginia Constitution, "Excessive bail shall not be required...", in regards to which Mr. Livermore commented, "The clause seems to have no meaning to it, I do not think it necessary. What is meant by the term excessive bail...?!"

The Eighth Amendment, to the Constitution, like the English Habeas Corpus Act of 1678, requires that a suspect "be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation" and thus enabling a suspect to demand bail if accused of a bailable offense.

The Judiciary Act of 1789

In 1789, the same year that the Bill of rights were introduced, Congress passed the Judiciary Act. This specified which types of crimes were bailable and set bounds on the discretion of a judge in setting bail. The Act states that all noncapital offenses are bailable and that in capital cases the decision to detain a suspect, prior to trial, was to be left to the judge.

The Judiciary Arct states, "Upon all arrests in criminal cases, bail shall be admitted, except where punishment may be by death, in which cases it shall not be admitted but by the supreme or a circuit court, or by a justice of the supreme court, or a judge of a district court, who shall exercise their discretion therein."

Bail law in the United States remained relatively unchanged from 1789 until 1966. In 1966, the U.S. Congress passed the Bail Reform Act, which was designed to allow for the release of defendants with as small a financial burden as possible. Before signing the act, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech that contained stunning examples of how the bail system had hurt people in the past. Here’s one particularly disturbing example: “A man spent two months in jail before being acquitted. In that period, he lost his job, he lost his car, he lost his family -- it was split up. He did not find another job, following that, for four months” [ref]. Other anecdotes related similar stories: poor people spending months in jail only to later have the charges dropped; others forced to sit in jail, unable to work, only to be found innocent of all charges. In short, the bail system was biased against the poor and filling jails with people who should be out on bail.

The 1966 Act was particularly criticized within the District of Columbia, where all crimes formerly fell under Federal bail law. In a number of instances, persons accused of violent crimes committed additional crimes when released on their personal recognizance. These individuals were often released yet again.

The Judicial Council committee recommended that, even in non-capital cases, a person's dangerousness should be be considered in determining conditions for release. The District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970 allowed judges to consider dangerousness and risk of flight when setting bail in non-capital cases.

The next major revision to U.S. bail law came with the Bail Reform Act of 1984, which replaced its 1966 predecessor. While the previous Reform Act had helped to overturn discrimination against the poor, it had left open a serious loophole that allowed many dangerous suspects to receive bail as long as they didn’t appear to be flight risks. This new law stated that defendants should be held until trial if they’re judged dangerous to the community. The law also established new categories of who could be held without bail -- mostly those charged with very serious crimes, repeat offenders, the potentially dangerous and anyone who might be a flight risk. And finally, the act stated that those who were eligible for bail had to have a bail hearing.