Update: This bill was signed into law on May 18, 2017.
Under current Tennessee law, a person who has been charged with a crime or has served their time and is leaving prison must pay off their court fees and fines within one year — or else have their driver’s license revoked. This punitive law, which applies even to those who are found not guilty of a crime but still must pay court fees and fines, unfairly targets poor people who are unable to pay expensive legal fees, resulting in tens of thousands of Tennesseans losing their means of getting and keeping a job, supporting their families and successfully re-entering society.
SB 802/HB 1173 would change that, amending the law to offer courts alternatives to revoking peoples’ licenses, including allowing a person to file an indigency affidavit and have all their fees and fines waived, giving courts the ability to permit restricted licenses to allow people to drive to work, school, recovery programs and other necessities, and setting up a payment plan to pay the fees over time. This bill is brought by the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice, which ACLU-TN co-founded.
This bill would remove the current law’s targeting of low-income people who can’t afford to pay back costly court fees and fines in such a short period of time. Because 75% of Tennesseans who are charged with crimes qualify for appointment lawyers on account of their low income status, the law likely disproportionately punishes these same people when they are exiting the criminal justice system. This measure would alleviate the harsh punishments in place that mostly hurt poor people can’t afford their court fees and fines, and would also help people who live in rural communities, where access to reliable public transportation isn’t available as it is in urban areas.
Current law negatively impacts tens of thousands of Tennesseans while failing to increase fee collection. While it was supposed to increase payment collections of fees and fines, available data does not show a correlation between the current law and collections. As of March 2016, 55,000 Tennesseans had their licenses revoked due to failure to pay court fees and fines, but only 7% of them were able to pay off their debt and have their licenses reinstated over the next year. Instead of increasing payments statewide, this mean-spirited law instead creates a cycle that sets up low-income people for failure and makes it difficult for them to ever pay off their debts.
This bill helps people who are trying to get their lives back on track get and maintain employment. Because 86% of Americans rely on a car to get to work, and most employers require proof of a valid driver’s license when hiring workers, having a driver’s license is an important part of keeping a job. The goal of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them to be productive members of society, but by punishing low-income individuals by taking away their driver’s licenses, the un-amended law prevents them from being able to get and keep steady employment and support their families.
Tell lawmakers: Don’t punish people who are trying become productive members of their community just because they can’t afford to pay court fees and fines. Support SB 802/HB 1173.
Sample Letter to Legislators
SUBJ: YES on SB 802/HB 1173
I am writing to urge you to support SB 802/HB 1173, which would amend a current law revoking the driver’s licenses of Tennesseans who are unable to pay their court fees and fines within a year of leaving prison or having their cases dismissed.
This legislation would offer courts alternatives to revoking peoples’ licenses, like taking into consideration the person’s indigent status, allowing the use of a restricted license for specific purposes, including driving to work or to religious services, or creating a longer-term payment plan.
This measure would stop the current law from unfairly targeting poor people and people who live in rural communities in Tennessee. 75% of Tennesseans charged with a crime qualify for court-appointed lawyers on account of their low-income status, and the current law likely disproportionately impacts the same people as they exit the criminal justice system and struggle to pay off extremely high fees and fines. This bill would also remove the burden the law places on people who live in rural areas of Tennessee, where public transportation isn’t available and the distance from home to work is too far to walk.
SB 802/HB 1173 would also make it easier for recently released people in our state to find and keep a job, helping them successfully reintegrate into their communities. 86% of Americans rely on a car to get to work, and most employers require proof of a valid driver’s license during the hiring process. By taking away low-income individuals’ driver’s licenses, current law prevents them from being able to maintain steady employment and support their families.
For all these reasons, I ask you to support SB 802/HB 1173 and protect people from being punished for being too poor to pay their court fees and fines.