Fines and fees that result from contact with the criminal legal system serve as a suffocating debt for those against whom they are assessed. Many states have countless laws that require taxes, fines, and fees to be assessed against individuals involved in the criminal legal system at various stages of the criminal legal process, and they have the effect of permanently trapping individuals within the system. In Tennessee, for example, these debts, which can accumulate to over $10,000 in a single criminal case, stand in the way of individuals getting their criminal records expunged, keeping valid driver’s licenses, and restoring their voting rights, among other things. However, as in many other states, Tennessee’s legislature is decidedly hostile to the poor (particularly when poor people’s issues compete with the perceived financial health of government entities), and the urgency of the problem cannot wait for unwilling lawmakers to realize the change that thousands of people need. Using Tennessee as a case study and drawing on the author’s experiences working within the State’s system, this Article considers ways to effectively advocate for the elimination of court debt as a punishment for poverty. First, it provides an abbreviated history of court debt and explains how that history still impacts individuals today. This Article also draws upon the author’s experiences representing individuals in court, appearing before judges, and collaborating with other stakeholders to show the difficulty of achieving a state-wide movement for reform in Tennessee’s current political climate, a problem not unique to this state. Finally, the Article concludes by discussing how local actors can work within current legal frameworks to protect people from extortionist fine and fee policies and limit the harmful growth of the criminal legal system.
Wesley Dozier & Daniel Kiel,
Debt to Society: The Role of Fines & Fees Reform in Dismantling the Carceral State,
U. Mich. J. L. Reform
Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjlr/vol54/iss4/4