Recognizance: Definition & Law

Instructor: Ian Lord

Ian has an MBA and is a real estate investor, former health professions educator, and Air Force veteran.

In many circumstances it doesn't make sense for the criminal justice system to keep people in jail between their arrest and trial but instead release them on their own recognizance. Let's examine the definition and laws surrounding this option.


George is a barista in a coffee shop who has a problem with overindulging in alcohol. A few years ago he was convicted of driving under the influence, and has just been arrested again for the same offense.

Other than these offenses, he is a law-abiding citizen. The judge does not believe that George needs to be detained while awaiting trial, and is considering granting release on his own recognizance. Let's help George understand what exactly this means and how it affects his release from jail.


Criminal suspects may be released from custody following an arrest rather than spend time in jail awaiting trial. When this happens it is said that the suspect is released on their own recognizance. The suspect must sign a written promise to appear in court as ordered. This also means that the suspect does not have to pay bail money to the court or post a bail bond to be released from jail.

Of course, if George fails to appear in court than a warrant will be issued for his arrest and now he has an additional charge against him. In some jurisdictions the county sheriff (instead of a judge at the initial trial) may release criminal suspects on their own recognizance even before an initial court appearance. This of course with the threat that a criminal warrant for arrest will be issued if the suspect fails to appear in court.

The judge may place specific conditions and requirements for George until the court date in exchange for granting a release on his own recognizance.


Judges and sheriffs may impose conditions that have a nexus or connection with the charged offense. In George's case, the court may require that he surrender his vehicle and immediately start attending alcohol abuse treatment classes.

Another example would be a spouse charged with domestic violence. The court may require that person to enroll in domestic violence education courses and be subject to a temporary restraining order preventing contact with the alleged victim until the court date.

A suspect could be ordered to avoid associating with any known criminals or gang members in some situations. Any conditions imposed by the court must be reasonably related to the circumstances of the charged crime.

Own Regognizance Officers

In some areas courts rely on 'Own Recognizance' or OR officers to assist judges and sheriffs in determining when such a release is appropriate. The OR officer may conduct background and criminal record checks, as well as learn more about the suspects ties to the community.

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