Monday, August 30, 2010

Getting Out of Jail On Credit

A St. Petersburg Times editorial published on August 15, 2010 entitled, "Getting out of jail moves into the plastic age," stated getting out of jail on credit was, "priceless." The editorial failed to mention that the new system might also be, "dangerous" and "irresponsible."

For the Sheriff to hire an out-of-state online service to, in effect be responsible for making sure defendants show up for court, has obvious problems written all over it. How will this software company ensure that defendants actually show up for their court appearance? What will they do if defendants fail to show?

We can answer those two questions.

First, they will do nothing to ensure that those who swipe their way out of jail are present in court. Second, they will simply call the Sheriff's Office to retrieve the AWOL defendant, thereby incurring more costs to the citizens. You see, when someone pays for bail, it is the bail agent's responsibility to find and retrieve the errant defendant at no cost to the taxpayer.

From all appearances, these swipe-and-go methods are not only a cash cow for local governments and/or Sheriff's; they completely ignore the reality of costs associated with no-show defendants, a large percentage of who are likely to commit another crime.

The editorial stated that limiting these credit card systems appears to be an, "unnecessary protection for the bail business," fails to recognize the fundamentals of what local bail agents do. When someone commits a crime, a Judge determines the flight risk and the potential danger the defendant may pose to the community. In order to keep our jails from becoming over-crowded, the Judge can either release the person on his/her own recognizance, which is a promise on their part to return for court, put them in a government-run and taxpayer-funded pretrial services program, or set an amount of bail to guarantee that the person will return on his/her court date.

In the third scenario, a private and local bail agent will accept responsibility for the defendant's return and will charge the defendant and not the taxpayer to provide that service. Once the responsibility is transferred to the bail agent, it is that agent's job, who has money on the line, to make sure the defendant returns to court. By all accounts, including years of statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, this system works extremely well and costs taxpayers nothing.

The swipe-and-go system run by an out of state online company completely removes the transfer of responsibility to a licensed and bonded agent who lives and works in the local community. It removes the economic interest that an agent has in making sure the defendant shows up for court. By doing so, we will see a reduction in the, "show-up rate," a likely rise in repeat crimes and extra costs to taxpayers for requiring law enforcement to retrieve the missing defendant.

Turning this part of our criminal justice system into a system akin to buying gas - commit a crime and be out of jail with no hassles and no inconvenience - will have long-term negative consequences and will cost taxpayers money in the long run and will do nothing to keep our streets safer.

For the St. Petersburg Times to minimize or trivialize these so called, "Spring Break" crimes is misguided. We are talking about dangerous drunk drivers, assaults on local residents and other crimes that are more than simply mischievous. A drunk driver or an assailant should be considered a very real criminal and a very real threat to our public safety. The swipe-and-go methods of release simply make it easier for those criminals to be back out on the street quicker and with virtually no oversight.