For some people, bailing out of the Pinellas County Jail is now as simple as whipping out a credit card. A recent story in the St. Pete Times describes a new county program which allows inmates to use a credit card to bond out of the Pinellas County Jail on minor offenses.
You can now use a debit card or credit card to post bail of $750 or less, instead of paying cash or using a bail bond company. It is the first program of its kind in the Tampa Bay area and one of only seven (7) in Florida.
Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats says it’s a convenience with a purpose: to reduce the number of people in the Pinellas County Jail awaiting trial.
The program emerged from a meeting among the Sheriff, County Clerk, Chief Judge, Public Defender and State Attorney.
The $750 bail limit was a compromise between the parties. Sheriff Coats wanted $1,000 so more people could use the program. State Attorney Bernie McCabe wanted $500 (presumably, so less people would be able to bond out). The $750 limit is a start, Coats said, and might be adjusted.
The limit means only a small percentage of people in jail — those charged with minor crimes — can use the program.
Of the 3,252 people in the Pinellas County Jail Wednesday morning (September 8, 2010), 74 had bail of $750 or less. Another 1,075 people had bail between $750 and $1 million. The rest could not get out on bail. At least two dozen people have used the program since it began August 23rd.
Before now, someone had to appear in person with cash, a money order or a bail bond agent. That often meant calling mom or dad or your best friend to come bail you out.
Now anyone, even the inmate, can do it by phone with a credit or debit card.
The crimes covered by the $750 limit are mainly non-violent Misdemeanors and Traffic Offenses. For instance, No Valid Driver’s License (NVDL) or an Open Container violation carry a standard $250 bail. On the other hand, Armed Robbery with a Firearm typically carries a bail of $50,000.
A 7 percent fee will be added by Government Payment Service of Indianapolis, which runs the program. The Sheriff’s Office and Clerk’s Office each get a 10 percent cut of that fee.
Government Payment Services also accepts all liability for the transactions, said Marian Garret, the jail’s inmate records supervisor. That will help protect the government from people who use stolen credit cards or don’t pay their debts, she said.
The company has worked with the Florida Department of Corrections for more than a decade, processing Probation and Parole fees. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin use the company for a majority of their governmental services.
Bail bond companies, which have the most to lose from such a program, are skeptical.
Michael Nefzger of BAIL Florida, an association for bail agents, thinks the added fees could become exorbitant. It could also lead to more people using stolen credit cards, he said.
Nefzger said the real problem with jail crowding is too many people facing charges in which state law forbids release on bail.
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