by Jon Styf
As Tennessee lawmakers continue to examine reforms in the criminal justice system, two recently released reports showed that the state is not collecting the proper data to evaluate the fines and fees collected from its court system.
Non-profit policy think tank Think Tennessee found that, despite a 2019 law requiring all courts to create a payment plan system for those who financially will have issues paying court fees, the law has been implemented inconsistently throughout the state.
“For Tennesseans who face an endless cycle of penalties due to an inability to pay court debt, the county where they live could determine whether they have access to a payment plan that could help them break free,” Think Tennessee wrote. “Moreover, court fines and fees have a disproportionate impact on people who are low-income, Black and/or rural, and the financial hardship they experience may lead to increased recidivism with more significant impacts for communities as a whole.
“Changes to public policy could mitigate the economic damages of court fines and fees and lead to more equitable outcomes for all Tennesseans.”
While there is no system for collecting data over Tennessee’s county court systems, Think Tennessee conducted a phone survey with 51 or Tennessee’s 95 county clerks responding.
Two of the responding counties acknowledged not having a payment plan system setup, while 46 have payment plans that help defendants avoid losing their drivers’ licenses over unpaid fines.
Tennessee courts have been allowed to suspend licenses since 2011 for unpaid fines and fees.
“ThinkTennessee’s survey showed that most counties technically make payment plans available to low-income Tennesseans with court debt, but that access to those plans – as well as procedures for implementing them and for suspending the driver’s licenses of Tennesseans who have fallen behind on their payments – varies widely across counties,” the report said. “As a result, some county clerks report that nearly everyone eligible for a payment plan is enrolled, while others say their county has just middling or very low usage.”
Data from a Sycamore Institute study shows that counties collect just 3 cents of revenue from court fines and fees for every $1 that counties bring in tax revenue, meaning the fines and fees are not a huge part of county budgets.
In its recent report, Sycamore Institute brought forward recommendations for Tennessee in the interest of improving the court fines and fees system. The group believes looking at recent reforms in Florida, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania could be helpful in the process.
The first suggestion is to use current public accounting systems to see the impact of the fines and fees on local and state budgets to see how much is collected, how the money is used and evaluate the financial impact.
While new financial data was not available across the system, Sycamore Institute examined data from a 2012 report from Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR).
The data showed that Tennessee courts levied $58 in court fines and fees per resident while collecting just $16 per resident.
The Sycamore Institute recommended connecting that information with data throughout the system to see how much of a financial obligation that those in the court system face, including bail bond agents, jail phone providers and fees from jail administrators.
Sycamore Institute then recommends collecting that data in a central repository and making the data available to the public.
“Fees and fines help fund Tennessee’s criminal justice system and punish people convicted of crimes,” Sycamore Institute wrote in its report authored by policy analyst Bryce Tuggle. “However, wide variation in their application across the state and a lack of robust data make it hard to gauge their impact on public safety, public finances, and the personal finances of affected families and individuals. Policymakers need better data at each stage of the process to understand how this system functions and evaluate its outcomes.”
– – –
Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter for The Center Square who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies.