02/24/20: Debt related to criminal justice undermines aims of system


Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil RightsPublished 4:00 a.m. CT Feb. 24, 2020 |Updated 12:40 p.m. CT Feb. 27, 2020

Debt related to criminal justice undermines aims of system



  • Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

  • This op-ed was voted on unanimously by members of the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

This legislative session, the General Assembly and Gov. Bill Lee have an opportunity to enhance the quality of justice in our state while improving the well-being of communities throughout Tennessee. Policies designed to reduce recidivism in our criminal justice system improve public safety and benefit all Tennesseans. 

The practice of assessing fees, taxes, surcharges and other costs on those involved with the Tennessee criminal justice system has grown substantially in recent years. Devised as a means of funding the system, these legal financial obligations, or LFOs, have become a challenging and unavoidable part of the penal experience for adults and juveniles.   

Ashlee Sellars stands next to one of her favorite murals by artist Omari Booker, which says, "They tried to bury us. Little did they know we were seeds.” Sellars was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a crime she was a bystander to at 17 years old. She was released in 2017 and now works with a Nashville nonprofit aimed at "restorative justice." (Photo: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean )

Regrettably, LFOs can create a slew of negative, unintended consequences not only for justice-involved individuals, but for their families, neighbors and communities as well. Importantly, LFOs can undermine the ultimate aims of the criminal justice system — namely, to reduce crime and ensure that former defendants can become productive and well-integrated members of society.  

In 2019, the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated the practice of using LFOs in our state’s criminal justice system. The committee found that Tennessee’s system of LFOs runs contrary to the state’s policies of successfully reintegrating formerly incarcerated individuals and ensuring a just, fair and equitable criminal justice system.  

242 Photos March political cartoons from the USA TODAY Network

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Debt can be insurmountable

In its recently released report, the committee reached three main conclusions that it forwarded to the commission. First, individuals returning to their communities after a period of incarceration often are saddled with insurmountable levels of LFO debt that they cannot pay despite good-faith efforts to do so. Failure to pay can result in major setbacks for those struggling to get back on their feet. Families and friends are often called upon to help pay off the debt, straining important social ties. Even worse, individuals who fall behind on payments can end up back in jail even without committing another offense. Ultimately, this debt creates barriers to successful reentry, exacerbating the complex challenges already involved in finding stable work, housing and transportation after incarceration.  

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Second, the current framework for LFOs at the state and local levels is inconsistent with the clear policy goals of ensuring a fair and equitable justice system. The committee found that the number and types of fees, taxes and other LFOs in criminal proceedings, which have grown substantially in the past decades, vary across county and local courts and are assessed inconsistently. This practice risks creating uncollectable debt for the local government. Crucially, it also can foster perverse incentives for local jurisdictions to establish new LFOs, and for courts to assess LFOs excessively, in order to augment their own local revenue. 

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Finally, based on its investigation, which included hearing testimony from policymakers, legislators, academics, advocates and formerly incarcerated individuals, the committee found that the harsh consequences of criminal justice-related debt fall disproportionately upon women, the poor and communities of color.  

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State should move away from funding model

Consequently, moving away from the practice of using LFOs as a funding model for the criminal justice system would further the state’s policy goals of promoting the successful reintegration of justice-involved individuals and of ensuring a fair and equitable justice system throughout Tennessee’s communities. 

The governor and many legislators have started the ball rolling on much-needed criminal justice reform. The several recommended reforms included in our report should play a leading role in this reform agenda.  

This op-ed was voted on unanimously by members of the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who are listed in the report, which is found at https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2020/01-15-TN-LFO-Report.pdf. Members of the committee are Chair Diane Di Ianni, Nashville; Vice Chair Shaka L. Mitchell, Nashville; Harold A. Black, Knoxville; Sekou M. Franklin, Nashville; J. Gregory Grisham, Memphis; Daniel A. Horwitz, Nashville; Brian K. Krumm, Knoxville; Frank R. Meeuwis, Madison; Justin D. Owen, Nashville; Amy L. Sayward, Murfreesboro; the Rev. Gail S. Seavey, Nashville; Eliud Trevino, Antioch; Valorie K. Vojdik, Knoxville; and Yesha Yadav, Nashville.

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