Dec 2, 2021 - Politics

First look: Tennessee's court debt crisis

The Think Tennessee logo over a yellow background.
Courtesy of Think Tennessee

Tennessee has fallen short on addressing court fines and fees that can hobble poor, minority and rural residents, according to a new report by the nonprofit think tank Think Tennessee.

Why it matters: Court debt deepens economic disparities and creates an endless cycle of financial struggle for many. Failure to pay can cost a person their driver's license, destroy their credit, and tether them to a maze of bureaucratic red tape.

  • The General Assembly passed a law in 2019 that waived court fees for indigent people and allowed others to use payment plans for their debt.

Yes, but: The Think Tennessee study — which included a phone survey of county clerks — found the payment plans have been implemented inconsistently across the state, with rules varying from county to county.

The bottom line: Think Tennessee proposed several policy changes to address the problem, including increasing access to payment plans, adding more avenues for waiving fines and fees, and eliminating punishments such as revoking driver's licenses.

  • "The county I live in could determine my access to the payment plan," Think Tennessee president Shanna Singh Hughey tells Axios. "And that access could determine whether I lose my license or not.
  • "It's a hodge-podge of policies from county to county."
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