by John Styf
A new report shows that Tennessee’s law allowing the suspension of driver’s licenses for not paying court fees is not leading to more fees being paid.
The report, from nonpartisan think tank ThinkTennessee, shows that the 2011 law allowing for the revocations and then a court injunction against the law between 2018 and 2020 did not have a noticeable effect on fee collections.
The report used data from a Sycamore Institute report that showed low levels of fines and fee collections and that those fines and fees are less of county’s budgets than expected. Counties collect just 3 cents of revenue from court fines and fees for every $1 that counties bring in tax revenue.
“While fines are punishments for wrongdoing and are intended to deter and discipline offenders, fees are designed solely to raise revenue and place the burden of funding and providing court services on the individuals that are least able to afford it,” said ThinkTennessee President Erin Hafkenschiel. “User fees make sense in a wide variety of scenarios, but this new data shows that is simply not the case here. By reforming this system, Tennessee can cut this government red tape and remove barriers for Tennesseans trying to get back on their feet, better their lives, and contribute to society.”
Fines and fee payments, instead, are more dependent on income levels of those who have fees imposed than anything. The typical income of those who have court debt is roughly $5,300 and $9,377 a year.
The stimulus in April 2021 increased collection rates by 12 percentage points.
The Fines and Fees Justice Center, Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union are working on an “End Justice Fees” campaign to push to end court fines and fees.
Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, pointed out that conservative-led states such as Texas, Utah, Montana and West Virginia have eliminated drivers’ license revocations for lack of fee payments.
The Sycamore Institute report found that 360 different fines and fees are authorized by law in Tennessee, which collects nearly $38 million collectively each year from fines and fees, but likely collects less than 25% of the fines and fees that are assessed.
ThinkTennessee found that the statewide collection rate was 36% in 2021.
“Incremental changes provide stepping stones in the right direction, but in the case of court debt, it is not providing enough relief to the Tennesseans that need it most,” ThinkTennessee’s report said. “A more comprehensive approach to policy reform, would not only reduce our government’s ineffective reliance on court-cost revenues to fund our state courts, but also help reduce recidivism and empower Tennesseans to improve their economic mobility.”
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Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter at The Center Square who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies.
Photo “Man Giving His Driver’s License to the Policewoman” by Kindel Media.