Beyond Payment Plans: Breaking the Cycle of Court Debt in Tennessee

Tennessee, like many states, relies on fines and fees to fund its criminal justice system. To alleviate the adverse effects of court debt for low income residents, in 2019, the state adopted a law requiring courts to offer payment plans. However, implementation and access to these plans has been inconsistent across the state. In this report, authors use findings from a survey of county clerks to outline actions policymakers and practitioners can take to close gaps in payment plan access. 

Read the full report here

Key Findings:

  • People who owe court costs are typically extremely low income; unpaid fines and fees create serious barriers to housing and employment, and increase rates of recidivism. 
  • Driver’s license suspensions cause significant hardships for indigent people who do not have the ability to pay court fines and fees. 
  • Most Tennessee counties, 90 percent, make payment plans available to defendants with court debt, but access and procedures for implementing them vary widely. 
  • Some counties use automatic enrollment, while others require defendants to complete a form or pay a down payment.
  • There variation in the consequences for missed payments; some counties send a notice to revoke the person’s driver’s license after one missed payment, while others have a two or three strike policy. 
  • People convicted of a DUI cannot access payment plans for related fines. 
  • Individuals must meet income requirements to qualify. 


  • Streamline the payment-plan process to increase access.
  • Create more avenues for waiving fine and fees by incentivizing judges to use their discretion to grant waivers. 
  • Eliminate counterproductive economic punishments like the revocation of a driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt.
  • Reduce government reliance on revenue from fines and fees.
Think Tennessee