There are similarities between the two, but they are inherently different. Both are basically guarantees that if the criminal defendant is released from police custody, he or she will return to court in the future at a set time. It is basically insurance, because it is usually money.
Bail is money from the defendant, their family members – sometimes it is a huge sum of money, depending on the assets of the defendant and the nature of the crime. Bail cannot be excessive under the 8th Amendment, but if the defendant is fabulously wealthy, the bail must be large enough that they will not skip out on the next court appearance. If the defendant fails to return to court at the designated time, the money is not refunded, and a warrant is issued for their arrest. Not everyone is entitled to bail. Sometimes there is a hearing in order to determine whether bail should be set at all, and if so, how much. The court must consider things like if the defendant is likely to flee the country, or is too dangerous to be released back into society. If these seem likely, then the court can set a high bond or deny bond, period. In federal court, if the mandatory minimum sentence exceeds ten years, the defendant can be denied bond.
Bond comes into play when the defendant (or her family) are unable to make bail. Bonds are bails which are paid by a bail bond company. These companies require collateral before they will pay bail, usually very high-value property such as a car or even a home. The defendant usually must contribute at least ten percent to the bondsman (kind of a down payment). The bondsman then pays a portion of the bail required. If the defendant does not appear, then the bondsman has to pay the rest of the bail, and they are allowed to send out a bounty hunter for the return of the defendant – which is why Dog the Bountyhunter got his own reality show. If you hire a bondsman, ask a lot of questions and read the contract carefully.
Some states allow defendants to do without the third party, and post their own property bond – putting their house up as collateral instead of having to fork over actual cash, for example. Remember, this money and property will be refunded, provided you show up to each court hearing as required. As soon as you fail to appear, that money is gone, and any property you have put up can be seized.
For less serious offenses, or even those who have an attorney, the defendant can do what’s called a signature bond, where they are ‘released on their own recognizance,’ and promise to appear in court without having to put up any money as insurance. These are for small, first-time offenders, with no flight risk and who do not pose any threat to the general public. While the judge determines how much bail or bond should be set for, in many cases there are standard amounts for certain crimes. Smaller crimes that do not hold a lot of jail time can be set on a state basis – for example, someone arrested for a public intoxication case may have a low bail (like $1,000.00), that can be paid the same night they are arrested and booked.
Essentially, defendants who are able to secure their release from custody with money post bail. Defendants who have to offer up some kind of collateral post bond. If you have any questions or concerns about posting bail or bond, it is prudent to discuss this with an attorney, who can help you weigh out all your options. Regardless, always show up to your designated court dates. Not only could you lose the money you posted, but you will be arrested again, and it will be a black mark on your record… not a good thing when you are trying to fight a charge.