Americans pay with credit cards for nearly everything, from clothes to groceries. But the convenience that comes with using plastic typically stops at the courthouse door. That is about to change in Pinellas County, where credit cards and debit cards soon will be accepted to post a criminal cash bail bond. A private company will charge a hefty fee for the service, but the change provides more flexibility for those suddenly coping with the criminal justice system and a friend or relative in jail.
The change is happening because key officials came together to make it happen: Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, Pinellas County Court Clerk Ken Burke, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Chief Judge Thomas McGrady. Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. They are generally a cooperative bunch, and this should ease the stress for some residents in an unfamiliar situation.
The system should be up and running within weeks. The contract with Government Payment Service Inc., which will administer the program, is being finalized. Several North Florida counties already use the company for electronic bond payment. But Pinellas County has decided to structure the program a little differently and limit the use of credit and debit cards to bonds up to $750. None of the other counties in Florida serviced by GPS impose a dollar limits. Why Pinellas will have a low limit isn't clear, except that it appears to be unnecessary protection for the bail bond business.
The fee collected by GPS will be a flat 7 percent of the bond, and from that fee 10 percent will go to the Sheriff's Office and 10 percent to the court clerk. Coats says that the amount of the fee tacked on to the bond was a consideration in deciding which vendor to choose. But 7 percent seems high, considering how little risk GPS is shouldering. Unlike surety agents who may forfeit a bond if a defendant fails to show at court, the risk of loss under a system where credit cards are used is on the credit card company, not GPS.
Yet bringing credit and debit card use to jail is a big step forward. The joke is that it's a spring break relief program, allowing out-of-state parents to get their college students out of jail instantly by paying their bond by phone or online, rather than having to wait for a money order to arrive by mail. But it also means that the system will be less burdened. A large proportion of inmates in the Pinellas County jail are awaiting trial and costing taxpayers $126 per day, and lately about 200 inmates have been sleeping on the floor due to a lack of bed space. Making payment easier should mean more of those inmates will make bond and be released.
Disorderly Intoxication: $500 bond; Getting Out of Jail Now on Credit: Priceless.