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California and the West

Agency Blocks Use of Automated Bail System in Santa Clara County

November 27, 1998|EDWARD WONG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JOSE — Silicon Valley's cutting-edge technology may ease local jail overcrowding, but first a political squabble over an automated bail system must be settled.

The Santa Clara County Department of Corrections hopes that some misdemeanor suspects soon will be able to pay for their bail by using credit cards at a computer kiosk that was installed last month in the county jail's booking lobby.

However, bail agents have protested, accusing the county and the kiosk's operating company of illegally muscling in on their business. As a result, a state agency has temporarily blocked the opening of the kiosk, which resembles an automated teller machine.

The kiosk would help release up to a dozen people a weekend out of jail, estimated Rick Kitson, spokesman for the county Department of Corrections. "That may seem like a little, but over the course of a year that's a benefit to us. We're looking for any way to give us flexibility to deal with crowding issues," he said.

Under state guidelines, the county jail is supposed to hold only 3,800 inmates over the course of a month. Last month's population numbered 4,500. Santa Clara County is not bound by a state court order that requires about half of the states' county jails to release inmates once they reach capacity.

Although any suspect with a valid credit card can use the kiosk, officials expect that it will most benefit defendants with bail amounts less than $5,000 who are brought in on weekends, when banks are often closed. Most of those suspects face misdemeanor charges such as drunk driving, drug possession and vandalism. County officials say those suspects take up valuable space in the state's fourth-largest county jail system.

The kiosk users still have to show up for trial to receive a refund of their bail money. In addition, they automatically will pay a 10% nonrefundable surcharge to the kiosk operator, a Laguna Beach-based company called Judicial Solutions. The surcharge rate was set by the county to ensure that Judicial Solutions did not undercut the rate usually charged by bail agents.

However, bail bonds agents contend that state law prohibits unlicensed vendors like Judicial Solutions from issuing the funds. They brought their case last month to the California Department of Insurance, which then prevented the county from putting the machine into use until the department reviews the matter. A court battle may follow.

The kiosk "could be very damaging to the mom-and-pop industry that lives on small bails," said Tedd Wallace, president of the Santa Clara County Bail Agents Assn. He predicted that lawsuits will be filed against the county if the state Insurance Department does not find in favor of the bail agents.

Alongside its overcrowded jails and prisons, California has the largest bail bonds industry in the United States. About $1.2 billion worth of bail bonds are written each year, making up a quarter of the countrywide total. Statistics from the California Bail Agents Assn. show that about 8% to 15% of pretrial releases occur on bail and that there are 1,550 licensed bail agents in the state.

John Bergmann, president of Judicial Solutions, said that bail agents won't lose much business because they rarely post bail for amounts less than $5,000. Most bonds issued by local agents are valued at more than $20,000, an amount beyond the credit card limit of most defendants.

The kiosk, manufactured by Siemens, is designed to release suspects quickly. Once a suspect slides in a credit card and punches in the bail amount, the machine will spit out a voucher to be presented to a jail officer. The suspect then would be released, and the county jail would hold the cash amount from a pool worth $500,000 to $1 million set up by Judicial Solutions. The company is the only party that makes a profit from the 10% surcharge.

The county argues that such a system is different from the insurance bonds that agents issue against the chance that the defendant won't show up for trial. So state statutes covering bail bonds do not apply to the kiosks, the county insists.

"Individuals are accessing their own funds," Brian Carr, attorney for the county, said of the kiosk process.

But bail agents also question whether the kiosk system eliminates a measure of vigilance ensuring that suspects show up for trial. Bounty hunters are sometimes hired by bail agents to track down suspects who try to flee before trial. County officials said most suspects who would use the kiosk are not likely to flee.

Bergmann said a drunk driving charge against a friend in Orange first inspired the kiosk idea. In 1995, he said, he went to bail out that friend, but was surprised to learn the jail didn't take credit cards. Bergmann, an engineer who has worked in the pay-per-view television business, founded Judicial Solutions that year.

If it is put into operation, Santa Clara would become the second county in California to make use of such technology.

Judicial Solutions' first customer was San Luis Obispo County, which put a kiosk in its jail in June with much debate. Except for a $26,000 bail that one suspect paid for using his credit card, almost all of the kiosk transactions there have been under $1,000, Bergmann said.

"I guess it's been going well," said Barry Shortz, a San Luis Obispo county correctional supervisor. "When it first came out, the bail bondsmen questioned it a little, but I haven't heard anything about it since then. We haven't had any problems with it. Not a lot of people use it." Bergmann said his goal is to have the kiosk installed in jails across the country.

"The bail industry is a monopoly, and they're real upset we're going into their business," Bergmann said. "Our policy is, 'Sorry, you should have developed this.' I think we've rung a bell here that can't be unrung for the bail industry."

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