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Uncollected Court Debts Piling Up in Tennessee

Over the past several years, counties in Middle Tennessee have had a difficult time collecting court fees and fines. The outstanding debts, from both civil and criminal cases, amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Davidson County (with Nashville as the county seat) has $290 million in uncollected fines and fees – almost enough to fund Metro’s police department, sheriff’s office, jail and fire department for an entire year. The recession that began in late 2007 made the collection of court debts more difficult, if not impossible.

“It is a problem and clerks across the state do not have a whole lot to help them collect the costs,” noted Sumner County Circuit Court Clerk Mahailiah Hughes. “It has gotten more difficult in the last couple of years.”

An official with the Davidson County Clerk’s Office has proposed legislation that he hopes will boost collections. That proposal would revoke people’s driver’s licenses if their court fees and fines are not paid within a year. The legislation includes measures to allow the poor to have their fees reduced or erased.

“I think it really needs teeth. Something needs to be held over their heads to make them pay,” said Tommy Bradley, chief administrative officer for the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk’s Office. “When people want a criminal charge off their record or have their driver’s license reinstated, they seem to come up with the money.”

Davidson County is also trying another method of collecting fees. A collections court subpoenas people who owe court debt to explain why they are not paying. Rather than taking a hardball approach, though, prosecutors are seeking to work with debtors. Frank Dangerfield, Jr., who owed $400 for a March 2009 disorderly conduct conviction, reached an agreement to pay $25 a month.

“It’s a good idea that they’re being patient,” said Dangerfield. “I don’t want them to lock people up for that. They didn’t treat me like a criminal.”

Attorneys for impoverished defendants criticized Bradley’s proposal to suspend the driver’s licenses of people who owe court debts. “We automatically assess these costs and fees at the time of the disposition of the case without giving any thought that the person, this defendant is going to be able to pay this or not,” said Metro Public Defender Dawn Deaner. “Suspending someone’s driver’s license, particularly a poor person’s driver’s license, makes it that much harder for them to get back on their feet and do the right thing.”

A two-year effort by the Rutherford County Circuit Court Clerk to use debt collectors helped to improve collections, but only brought in $190,029, or about half of what was owed.

Mahailiah Hughes said court fees are out of control and should end. “You cannot imagine the things that are attached to court costs. There’s TBI [Tennessee Bureau of Investigation] fees, there’s lab fees, there’s court fees, domestic violence is in on it,” she stated. “Everybody that goes to the legislature. That needs to stop.”

Source: The Tennessean

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