Mayor John Cooper’s office has released a report outlining the role of fines and fees in Nashville’s criminal justice system. It also lays out recommendations to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the city’s reliance on such costs.
“Nashville has made progress in reducing fines and fees that disproportionately affect some residents whose incomes are low or lower than others,” Cooper said in a press release. “I look forward to working with the Metro Council and the judicial community to identify more ways we can reduce the court system’s reliance on fines and fees.”
Criminal justice fines and fees are costs imposed on people who have been arrested for a crime. Individuals can be billed for a wide range of services, including a public defender, courthouse security and even their own arrest. Officials can also fine people who have been convicted of a crime as part of their punishment — anywhere from $50 for a class C misdemeanor to $50,000 for a class A felony.
Those bills can add up, and they often have long-term impacts, ranging from crippling debt to disenfranchisement.
The authors of the report call dependence on fines and fees to fill out the budget “pennywise, yet pound foolish.” They say these expenses can spark a cycle: someone is arrested, they’re billed for a series of court costs, they accumulate court debt and then they either commit another crime to pay off their debt or are incarcerated for falling behind on payments.
“There are often civil and criminal implications for people who do not pay assessed fines and fees: non-payment can impact everything from future employment to limitations on liberty,” the report states. “As a result, criminal justice fees, in particular, have become a form of ‘poor’ tax — where criminal defendants are punished as much for their socio-economic status as for their criminal defense.”
This cycle doesn’t just cost those within the criminal justice system, according to the report. It also affects taxpayers.
“There are direct and indirect costs of Metro Nashville’s system of fines and fees,” the authors write.
Those costs include postage and paper needed to remind people to pay their bills, as well as the salaries of a team of employees responsible for sending out those notifications and processing bills. Plus, the cycle of recidivism sometimes caused by court debt can also cost local and state government in the long-term, as people cycle in and out of jail and prison.
However, in spite of these expenses, the authors acknowledge that it won’t be easy for Metro to cut ties with fines and fees.
In fiscal year 2018, they say, criminal justice fines and fees generated nearly $8.5 million for the city. About 70% of that money went straight to the Metro budget, while other portions were used to fund the criminal court clerk’s office and the state’s probation system.
Some officials told consultants they worried scaling down fines and fees could jeopardize programs that are directly funded by the revenue they generate. However, the authors say there are ways to make up for lost revenue.
The report recommends that:
- The Metro Council eliminate the General Sessions probation fee and seven court fees set by the local government.
- The criminal court clerk eliminate the $15 late fee placed on outstanding debt.
- The sheriff eliminate fees for booking, work release and supervision.
- Judges, clerks and the district attorney collaborate to quickly identify and assist people who can’t pay their fines and fees.
- Use of fine and fee waivers be increased for those unable to afford their bills.
The authors write that these cuts to revenue can be offset in a handful of ways, including by:
- Reducing probation staff. The report notes the number of people on probation already dropped by about a quarter between FY 2014 and 2019, according to the report.
- Reducing the cost of incarceration, including by incarcerating fewer people.
- Reforming the bail system in order to release more people pre-trial.
Former Mayor David Briley hired consultants to study the city’s fines and fees structure in 2019, with help from a new Criminal Justice Fines and Fees Steering Committee. The group comprised both law enforcement leaders and advocates for those who have been accused and/or convicted of crimes.
At the time, Briley said he hoped the study would lessen the burden on low-income residents who interact with the criminal justice system and help the city to shift away from its reliance on revenue from court fines and fees.
In recent years, the city has taken some steps to reduce the financial burden on those who have been arrested. According to the mayor’s office, Nashville eliminated a $44-a-day jail fee and $25 pretrial release fee in 2018. The criminal court clerk has also created a unit to help defendants keep up with their court fines and fees or get waivers when needed.
Nashville attorney Diane DiIanni sat on a statewide committee that recently studied Tennessee’s use of legal financial obligations — another term for fines and fees — on behalf of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. After parsing through data and testimony from those directly impacted by fines and fees, she says the group decided the state, as a whole, ought to find new ways to fund its criminal justice system that don’t place the burden on those passing through it.
“The current system of using taxes and fees against individuals who are tied up with the justice system is contrary to all our interests. It is not just that someone could argue it is unfair or equitable for the individuals who have to pay it,” DiIanni says. “It is not in any Tennessean’s interest.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.