Debt to Society: The Role of Fines & Fees Reform in Dismantling the Carceral State


Between 2005 and 2017, the Tennessee General Assembly passed 46 bills that increased taxes, fines, and fees for individuals who came in contact with the criminal legal system.

The massive increase in the use of fines and fees in Tennessee over the last 40 years can be explained by the increase in the number of individuals in the criminal legal system and state and local budgets seeking alternative forms of revenue. This “user-funded” model burdens vulnerable people with court debt that they cannot afford to pay. Those with outstanding debt cannot have their criminal records expunged, vote, and may have their licenses suspended. Tennessee nor its counties have a reliable way to calculate how much revenue is generated from court costs, but the limited data indicates less than 30 percent of the assessed amount is collected. Without any change in the substantive law by the Tennessee General Assembly regarding assessing court costs, advocates have turned to local strategies to find relief for individuals. Strategies include partnering with stakeholders to relieve individual court debt and lobbying judges to use their judicial discretion to waive court debt. This article outlines advocates’ efforts to alleviate the criminal court debt of vulnerable people in Tennessee.

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • In Tennessee, ability to pay assessments are not conducted before assessing fines and fees.
  • The percentage of individuals convicted of felonies and assessed fees increased from 10 percent to over 50 percent between 1991 and 2004.
  • 75 percent of people charged with a criminal offense are indigent.
  • In 2018, the Shelby County General Session Court-Criminal Division raised over $6 million from taxes, fines, and fees.
  • According to a 2011-2012 report, the Shelby County Criminal Court received $2.5 million, or just six percent, of the $39 million assessed in taxes, fines, and fees.
  • 46 percent of individuals at Just City who are expungement-eligible have court costs barring them from accessing their expungement. 


  • Partner with interested stakeholders to create funds to pay citizens’ court debt directly.
  • Leverage judicial discretion to encourage judges to use judicial waivers more widely. 
Wesley Dozier & Daniel Kiel
University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform