by Jon Styf
A new report from The Sycamore Institute shows Tennessee collects nearly $38 million annually in fines and fees through the criminal justice system, while county governments are collecting a shrinking amount in fines and fees.
While the Tennessee Department of Revenue reports its collections of fines and fees annually, other agencies, such as the Department of Correction, the Department of Safety & Homeland Security and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, do not report detailed information on their collections.
The Sycamore Institute study found 360 fees and fines authorized in Tennessee law, from being charged with a crime to civil asset forfeiture to incarceration costs.
Locally, the report found county governments differ widely in the fines and fees they impose and generally are small and shrinking compared with other county revenues. The Sycamore Institute said county governments have collected $180 million in recent years, but that total might be as little as 25% of the amount of fees and fines they assessed.
“We’re just trying to help policymakers wrap their heads around all of this because … it doesn’t appear to be a system that people intended or sort of set out to say, ‘We’re going to have 360 of these,’ ” said Brian Straessle, director of external affairs for The Sycamore Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research center. “Over time, it’s grown into this almost maze of financial obligations that are in addition to any criminal sentence or parole or probation.”
The report, released Wednesday, is the second in a three-part series detailing the inner workings of fines and fees in Tennessee. Many of those fees are locally determined in each county’s court system. The data can be found when Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower and his team audit counties, which they do for all but five of the state’s counties.
The other five, which include the state’s largest metropolitan areas in Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville, conduct their own audits.
“We’re trying to take a closer look at where and what is that financial flow of money to the state and at the county level,” Straessle said. “We didn’t look at cities but, basically, we looked at all of the 95 counties that had audits. … Nobody had ever done this. To our knowledge, this is the first report to really dig into and try to quantify how much money are we talking about, how many fees and fines are being assessed on people, how much is being collected and where does that money go and what is it used for.”
The study also looked into asset forfeiture throughout the state.
“In 2019, 64 vehicles and just under $186,000 were forfeited to TBI and the Tennessee Highway Patrol – a large drop from two years earlier,” the study said. “About $315,000 from these and prior years’ proceeds paid for small expenses related mostly to helicopter repair. Local law enforcement and special drug task forces make the vast majority of asset seizures in Tennessee. In 2019, they accounted for 98% of all cash and 96% of all vehicle forfeitures.”
Many local agencies follow their own rules for fines and fees based on the county where they are located.
“Our analysis is limited by a lack of publicly-available data with the detail and duration required to draw stronger conclusions,” the study said. “Better data and additional research would paint a more precise picture of long-term trends and variation in state and county reliance on [legal financial obligations] revenues, as well as the sources of those differences. More information could also shed light on the indirect costs of fees and fines – including what counties spend to collect them, the costs of prolonged criminal justice involvement, and any downstream impact on tax revenue tied to things like employment and productivity.”
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Jon Styf contributes to The Center Square.