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Bail yourself out of jail -- with a credit card

Using a card to get out of jail can even earn rewards points

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The difference between spending a night in jail and getting out on bail may depend on whether your wallet contains a credit card.

In an increasing number of jails across the United States, credit cards can be used to post bail. Though the bail bondsman industry hates it, the swipe-and-go option has many fans. Jail officials see it as a way to keep jails from being overcrowded by minor offenders. Cardholders gain the obvious benefit -- escaping jail before the fingerprint ink dries. They can even earn rewards points for bailing out. 

A sign tells St. Lucie County detainees how to escape -- with a credit card

Jail tells arrestees how to escape -- via credit card

The sign at left informs prisoners at the St. Lucie County (Fla.) jail that freedom may just be a credit or debit card swipe away. Below, Deputy Michael Alonge demonstrates the use of a device that has allowed inmates to bail out with plastic since August 2007.

 

Photos by Jason Nuttle

Deputy Michael Alonge demonstrates how detainess bail themselves out with credit cards

In Madison County, N.Y., where the program has been in operation for several years, Sheriff Ronald Cary lauds credit card bailouts as a benefit to arrestees. "If they have a credit card and it meets the criteria, they can get out of jail," he says. "Not everybody deserves to be in jail and it allows us to get them out earlier."   

Swipe your way to freedom
It usually works like this: Defendants, family members or friends swipe their plastic through a reader. The bail is paid, with a fee assessed on top of the bond amount. A key turns. The prisoner walks.

To the legal system, it's just like any other bail payment: When the bailee shows up in court, the bailer gets his or her money back, less the fee. Warrants are issued for those who don't show up.

At the county jail in St. Lucie County, Fla., for example, a nonrefundable fee of 3.2 percent, with a minimum of $2.50 per transaction, is added to the bond amount when a Visa, MasterCard or Discover Card, or a debit card, is used to make a bond payment. MyFloridaCounty.com, the payment system used by most of the state's court clerks, then collects the fee for equipment and processing costs. 

Private firms handle bail transactions
At other jails, defendants have their credit card transactions handled remotely by a company that processes bail transactions by dialing the call center. One such company, Government Payment EXP, works with more than 1,100 agencies, including states, counties and municipalities. It operates much the way a merchant would, contacting card issuers to see whether there is available credit and informing cardholders if their credit cards are declined.

Government Payment EXP handles bond-outs via credit or debit card in more than 30 states, says Jeff Katz, the company's chief marketing and strategy officer. Once a payment is approved, the firm sends electronic notification to the jurisdiction. Credit or debit card bonds are treated as if the person paid with cash. "Once the payment is sent, we are out of the picture," Katz says. They do have to step back into the picture if a cardholder later disputes the payment on the bail, he says. 

How it works for jailers
Many jail officials say it's just one more twist to a familiar legal process. "All we do is wait for the fax to come back saying the payment has gone through. Then we can bond. We don't have anything to do with talking to the credit card company," says Connie Taylor, a jail officer at the Noble County Sheriff's Office in Albion, Ind. "Here in the jail we really don't care how people bond," she says. Credit card payments just add another option to the long-standing ones for bailing out of jail, such as paying the full amount in cash or using a bail bondsman.

Fans and detractors
Proponents of the program see obvious benefits. "It saves the county money, it saves the inmate time, plus it reduces our liability of having someone else in jail," says Lt. Dan O'Brien, booking supervisor at the St. Lucie County Jail in Fort Pierce, Fla. Since plastic offers a quick return to freedom and less time housing inmates, credit card payments shrink costs for items such as jail uniforms, food, shoes and toilet paper -- costs that eventually get passed on to taxpayers. Less time in jail for defendants also means less chance the officers will have to deal with the possibility of injury or health problems that can occur on their watches.

Not everyone is a fan. The national organization for bail bondsmen vehemently opposes the program, which they say lets counties generate revenue at the expense of both the justice system and the taxpayer.

"It makes a mockery of the criminal justice system," says Linda Braswell, president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, the national association for bail agents. "Why put someone in jail and let them charge getting out of jail to their credit card?"

Braswell sees it as another example of the system trying to come up with an answer to everyone's problems while discouraging accountability -- such as court-mandated drug programs, anger management classes or ankle bracelets -- at the expense of the taxpayer, instead of requiring hard time. "In the long run the financial responsibility isn't going to be as big to the bail community as it is to the already overburdened system and taxpayer," she says. 

Critics charge unaccountability
Critics also highlight the potential for cardholders who walk free to later dispute the credit card charges. While those who post bail using a bondsman and later fail to appear in court get tracked down by bail agents at no cost to the taxpayer, this is not the case for those who jump bail after using a credit card.

Rather, "If they don't show up on a credit card deal, they go on a pile of warrants," which the county must then address, says Dennis Schmidt of A-Liberty Bail Bonding in Fort Piece. "Credit cards bring no accountability into the criminal justice system. Bail agents ensure justice," says Jeff Kirkpatrick, executive vice president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States. 

The use of credit cards also has hurt the livelihood of the nation's bail agents, says Schmidt. "All the small bonds that are using the credit cards are what we lived off. Big ones don't come along that often."

However, Undersheriff Robert Lighthall of the Oswego County Sheriff's Office in Oswego, N.Y., sees little difference if someone decides to use a credit card for posting bail. The Oswego County facility saw the credit card bail option used 103 times for a total of $162,650 cash bail during 2006. "The credit card is a direct cash payment to us and not a bail bond. So when the court takes action on it, the court is taking action on a cash bail," he says. "If someone fails to appear or hold up to court requirements, the court can revoke the bail as cash bail." 

Yes, you can earn points for bail
Defendants who appreciate the convenience and speed of getting out of jail with their credit card will also be happy to learn they can actually earn points on their rewards credit card for posting bail. Several issuers, including some of the largest -- such as Citi and American Express -- acknowledged that bail transactions allow cardholders to earn rewards points. Restrictions may apply, so contact your card issuer before booking a flight to Rio. 

To comment on this story, write Editors@CreditCards.com.

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Published: September 21, 2007


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