Friday, August 31, 2007

Get out of jail, flee? Firms warn bond ATM risky

Dining out, traveling and shopping all became fast and easy with the advent of the credit card.

Now, so has something else: posting bond.

A sleek, ATM-style kiosk now greets arrivals in the concrete block lobby of the St. Lucie County jail, its animated touch screens beckoning arrivals who may debit or charge their bond - the price the accused pays to walk free before standing trial - to a Visa or MasterCard.

Since card processing debuted Aug. 1, 41 inmates have swiped $55,000 in bond payments.

While jail officials tout the new credit card option as a boon to taxpayers and inmates, those in the bail bond industry complain that the credit card system is an unfair and impotent competitor.

But it is faster.

The credit card system speeds the release of inmates who intend to post bond by hours, saving taxpayers some portion of the roughly $69 it costs to house an inmate for a day, jail officials say.

“The faster we can get them out of our house and in their own house, the better,” said Maj. F. Patrick Tighe, jail administrator for the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office.

Charging also costs less: 3.2 percent with a minimum service charge of $2.50, vs. the 10 percent a bail bond company usually charges a customer upfront and then keeps after the accused has his day in court.

Profits from the fees cover the cost of the kiosk and processing equipment, which also allow visitors to deposit cash - for a $5 service fee - into inmate accounts used to buy toiletries and snacks from the jail commissary. The fees pay for jail services and amenities, such as the libraries, substance abuse program or classes to help inmates complete their education by earning a General Educational Development diploma.

“It’s not out of the taxpayers’ money,” Tighe said. “It’s out of these profits.”

But the bail bond industry has fought credit card bond processing in other states where the machines have appeared, including California and Indiana. Credit card processing cuts deeply into the essential moneymakers of what remains an industry of mom-and-pop businesses: bonds ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, said Bill Kreins, spokesman for Professional Bail Agents of the United States, an industry association.

And unlike a credit card processor, a bond company has the tools and, more important, the incentive to hunt down those who skip bond, Kreins said. Kiosk users who flee face interest payments and a new warrant issued for their arrest.

Those who skip out on the bond face the bounty hunter.

“Sure, it cuts into business, but business is business and people can always open a store next to you,” said Kreins, who runs a surety company.

“There’s nobody who’s going to go out and arrest the defendant when he fails to appear. A bail bondsman basically rearrests at no cost to the taxpayers.”

A local bond agency said it was too early to tell whether the electronic system had affected the company. “A lot of people go out there with a money order or even pay cash to get someone out of jail,” said Janet Collins of Carroll Collins Bail Bonds.

Kreins said lawsuits to keep charge cards out of jails succeeded in California and failed in Indiana, arguing that the credit card processors amounted to unfair competitors that set prices and fee structures outside the regulatory eyes of state departments of insurance and banking, which typically oversee the bond industry. Kreins said a similar suit may be planned for Florida, where several other counties are considering allowing bond payments by credit card.

St. Lucie County is the first county to process bond payments through The Web site offers credit card payment options for other services - such as vehicle tag and driver license renewal - for 50 of Florida’s 67 counties.


Anonymous said...

This or similar ways to get around using bondsmen has been tried & failed in many cities & states. Do your homework it's out there. Bottom line, some people (or should I say a whole lot) do not goto court. Most police departments do not have the manpower to bounty hunt also. Those that do, don't have the same rights and/or powers that allow recovery agents to apprehend these people. Result, more crime on the streets. Eventually reverting back to Bail Bonds which has worked for many many years.

W. Zumas said...

The citizens of this country should be made aware that you do not get out of jail faster. The cash money put up will NOT be returned. There are all kind of hidden fees from the Sheriff Dept, Clerk of the Court and the Company providing this service. In addition, the court is going to take everything else. All monies put up with a bail company for collateral is returned. Not so with these do it at the Jail procedures. It is obvious that the Sheriff and Clerk of the Court has lost all interest in justice. Justice for the citizens of this country, county or state in the name of money. They are perfectly aware, if a person fails to appear they will not be going after them. It further proves that the very persons charged with Public Safety are forfeiting that cause in the name of money. Bail Company's ensure Justice.
W. Zumas