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NASHVILLE, TN – Payment plans were meant to make paying court fines and fees more manageable, but they are not yet meeting that goal, according to a new three-part policy brief, Beyond Payment Plans: Breaking the Cycle of Court Debt in Tennessee, released today by nonpartisan think tank ThinkTennessee.

Like most states, Tennessee punishes offenders with fines and helps fund its criminal justice system by charging certain fees of those who interact with it. In 2019, Tennessee instituted a new law that requires county courts to offer payment plans to low-income Tennesseans who owe court costs. Today’s report finds that access to those payment plans, and penalties for failing to comply with them, vary by county.

“Tennesseans who fall behind on court debt face very serious consequences, including the loss of their driver’s license,” said ThinkTennessee President Shanna Singh Hughey. “But today, the county in which someone lives determines whether she has access to a payment plan that could help break the endless cycle of punishment that kicks in when she misses a payment. Ensuring that the same rules apply to all Tennesseans is an important first step toward a fairer criminal justice system.”

In particular, studies show the cycle of court debt disproportionately harms low-income, Black and rural Tennesseans and negatively impacts the broader community, given that financial hardship often contributes to increased rates of recidivism.

The research, which includes findings from a phone survey of Tennessee county court clerks, finds that access to payment plans — as well as procedures for implementing them and for suspending the driver’s licenses of Tennesseans who have fallen behind on their payments — varies widely across counties. Importantly, it also includes recommendations that policymakers and practitioners can use to close gaps in payment plan implementation and further alleviate the adverse effects of court debt on individuals and the public.

The informational series on payment plans is broken into three sections:

  • Part I: Court Fines and Fees: Explains how Tennessee relies heavily on court fines and fees to fund its criminal justice system and describes how both individuals and the broader Tennessee public are harmed by inequitable, and often insurmountable, court debt.
  • Part II: Current Law in Tennessee: Describes how Tennessee law on court debt has changed over time, including the incomplete realization of ability-to-pay measures like payment plans, and illustrates how those changes have disproportionately affected low-income, Black and rural Tennesseans.
  • Part III: Recommendations for Fines and Fees Reforms: Highlights options for Tennessee policymakers to consider to further mitigate the economic damages of court fines and fees. These solutions range from moderate reforms, such as the establishment of a more streamlined payment plan process and the end of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid court costs, to larger initiatives, like those that would reduce government reliance on revenues from fines and fees for state and county budgets.
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