New report says Tennessee courts inconsistently apply court fines, fees | State

Irina Baranova

(The Center Square) – Tennessee’s ability-to-pay measures throughout its court fee system are implemented inconsistently throughout the state, according to a new report from the Sycamore Institute.

The nonprofit think tank examined information from across the state to show how the current system operates before Tennessee legislators consider criminal justice reform in the upcoming legislative session.

One measure courts can use is waiving fees for defendants who use a public defender. Data from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts for 2020 showed some counties (Crockett, Fayette, Hardeman and Moore) waived the fees 100% of the time, and others (Hamblen, Coffee, Humphreys, Obion and Hancock) waived the same fees less than 0.5% of the time.

“There is some intentional flexibility built into the code so that judges have some discretion to be able to make decisions based upon individual circumstances, but, at the same time, these standards are scattered throughout the code in multiple different chapters, so I think some of it is also just piecemeal policy making that’s happened over years, potentially decades,” said Mandy Pellegrin, Sycamore Institute’s policy director.

The report showed those fines and fees come into play throughout the criminal justice process, from pre-trial and trial to conviction/incarceration and community supervision.

The fees often are not collected together to analyze a defendants’ ability to pay and can lead to an extended amount of time for a defendant in the legal system.

“It sometimes doesn’t get enough attention in criminal justice reform efforts, but the jumbled mess of fines and fees can be huge stumbling block to people trying to get their lives on track,” lawyer and state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, tweeted about the report.

Other states have looked at reforming fines and fees in recent years, and Ohio has produced a bench card, or cheat sheet, with all the fines and fees for judges to consider.

“Fees are supposed to be procedural in nature,” Pellegrin said. “They’re supposed to help pay for the system. They’re not intended to be punishment. That’s what fines are for, that’s what restitution is for.

“So fees are an important part of funding the criminal justice system, but if you begin to look at the numbers in each county, it’s really a relatively small portion of local revenue. And we don’t have good data to understand whether or not these fees and county’s ability to collect them are actually creating new costs for the system. So, to the extent that it keeps people trapped in the criminal justice system longer, that could create new costs.”

A previous report from Sycamore Institute showed courts collect as little as 25% of the fees that are assessed among the 360 fines and fees in the state. Data on those fines and fees is not centrally collected or analyzed to see the total cost for a defendant in the system.

“Every little decision point along the path, there isn’t really clarity in state law around that,” Pellegrin said. “There are so many steps in this process where there isn’t clarity in state law.

“… We don’t really have a good grasp on the cost benefit of our current system of fees.”


https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/news/state/new-report-says-tennessee-courts-inconsistently-apply-court-fines-fees/article_bfab1fb9-f5f6-58b3-984c-511c2851b0c5.html

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