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Good Question: How Is Bail Determined?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
Heather Brown loves to put her innate curiosity to work to answer yo...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Former University of Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson was out of jail Monday afternoon after posting $20,000 bail. He allegedly assaulted another man, leaving him in critical condition.

But Neal Zumberge is still behind bars a week after he was charged with the murder of his neighbor. The New Brighton man was not able to make his $1.5 million bail.

It was those vastly different bail amounts that had Barbara from Edina wondering: Who determines bail?

“The judge is considering public safety and whether or not the person is a flight risk,” said Mark Thompson, the Fourth Judicial District administrator.

In Minnesota, the state constitution says “excessive bail shall not be required,” meaning bail must be set at a reasonable amount.

“In our country, we’re presumed to be innocent before proven guilty and bail ensures your reasonable right to get out and defend yourself against these charges,” Thompson said.

So, a judge must consider that notion, along with several other factors, when making decisions about bail.

For felonies, the amount of bail is up to the discretion of the judge. There is no average amount, but felony bails generally range from a few thousand dollars to over $1 million. When determining the amount, judges apply a specific test to each defendant on a case-by-case basis.

“Every person coming into court is looked at individually,” Thompson said. “We apply a scale to them. We test someone, interview them for a couple of hours and then check their background, check their family, check their resources, their mental health and their chemical dependency state.”

Rarely does a judge deny bail, but rather would set it very high.

When it comes to misdemeanors, judges generally follow a set bail schedule. For example, crimes like first-time loitering, trespassing and damage to property are $78 cash or $300 surety bond. Indecent exposure and prostitution are $150 cash or a $1,000 surety bond. Almost all DWIs are $12,000 cash or surety bond.

Given most crimes in Minnesota are misdemeanors, average bails are generally low. In Hennepin County, most people make bail and very few skip out.

According to Thompson, of the 119 people eligible for bail on Tuesday, 110 were released on bail and only a dozen used a bail bondsman.

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