Report: TN Justice System Fees Create "Insurmountable" Debt for People After Prison

Feb 5, 2020


Credit Public Domain

Court fees and taxes create heavy burdens for people entangled in Tennessee’s criminal justice system, concludes a report from the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Because these financial obligations can lead to crippling legal debt for many trying to start over after incarceration, the report recommends an overhaul of the state’s penal fee system. 

As of 2017, there are about 250 different types of court fees and taxes that can be used to fund local criminal justice systems. Charges can range from 50 cents to $300, with things like copy fees on the low end, and paperwork for an appeal on the high side.

Committee chair Diane Di lanni says such legal liabilities, which vary from court to court and are applied inconsistently across the state, can quickly add up.

“We heard testimony that some of these average accumulated debt that people are carrying from these taxes, fees and surcharges are as much as $9,000 to $12,000,” she says, adding that these financial loads disproportionately affect people already facing financial hardships, including communities of color, women and indigent people.

Allowing individual courts and counties to set their own fees, she says, can incentivize more fees and higher prices.

"All of which stands in stark contrast to our own goals as a state to not only promote reintegration after a period of incarceration, but to ensure a fair and equitable justice system,” Di lanni says.

The report asks lawmakers to consider a uniform statewide penal fee policy and a criminal justice funding system where any collected fees or taxes go into the state’s general fund for allocation.

Other recommendations include fees based on individuals’ ability to pay and the creation of a state board to study the impact of these fees.